Date: September 1, 2016
Subject: Public Policy Career Outlook for Legislators
In 2009, Congressmen received a pay raise, increasing their yearly salary to $174,000, which will most likely be raised in 2017. State Senators, on the other hand, have a large range of base salaries, with Senators in Texas starting at $7,200 a year and Senators in Pennsylvania starting at $84,012 a year. Yearly salaries aside, people involved in federal public policy careers have become infamous for their net worth. As of the 2014 midterm elections, the median net worth of a legislator at the federal level was $1,008,767, additionally 50% of Congressmen are billionaires.
This draws many questions. Does campaign finance ultimately determine our elections? Should our lawmakers economically represent the average citizen? How do Congressional legislators become incredibly wealthy?
As valid as the latter question is, it would be better to ask: how do the incredibly wealthy become Congressmen? With Congressional seats requiring millions of dollars in campaign finance money, it only makes logical sense that people who can afford to provide some of their own money or those who have wealthy contacts would have successful campaigns. As people living with an average income and wealth do not have an advantage or jump-start towards financing a campaign, our system favors the wealthy.
The future of careers in public policy do not show promising signs of change. With the Supreme Court decision regarding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, current officials in political spheres are leaning towards the approval of unrestricted amounts of money going towards campaign contributions. This paired with the rising trend of expensive elections, it seems as if to be a politician, one must already be wealthy. Judging from the current Presidential election, I think the short-term future shows no change. With the two major party candidates both being much more affluent than the average citizen and a legislative branch comprised of billionaires, our country is currently leaning towards a plutocratic establishment.
Despite this, the same election has shown a possibility towards less costly campaigns and better representation for average, middle class Americans. With Bernie Sanders emerging as a popular grassroots candidate and Elizabeth Warren becoming a prominent figure in bills supporting the middle class, the American populace is slowly, but surely, inching towards a government representing the average income tax bracket of America.
Supporting these small steps is a new movement towards changing who Congress represents. The “Brand New Congress” movement, launched by a former Sanders aide, is fighting for more Representatives and Senators with similar legislative plans as Sanders and Warren. Not only is the movement appealing to those passionate about issues regarding wealth stratification, it is also supporting millennials working as campaign officials and running as candidates. Along with this, supporters of the “Brand New Congress” are marking the beginning of supporting candidates who economically resemble average Americans, more than incumbent legislators do. These efforts are attempts to undermine the current Democratic establishment that says it fights for the middle class, despite party leaders being million- and billionaires. By actively campaigning for liberal candidates who do not resemble the current Democratic caucus in Congress, the “Brand New Congress” is making it known that they do not believe the opposing party is their enemy. They believe inaccurate representation is their enemy. This push may take more than a few election cycles, however, it illustrates the next generation of America’s politicians.
The “Brand New Congress” movement is rooted in down-ballot votes, hoping to quickly earn their seat at the national level. In my eyes, this strategy will see little success. As Tip O’Neill declared “all politics is local,” the next generation must begin in City Hall before they reach State Capitols, which will ultimately give them their fighting shot towards Capitol Hill. While millennials and middle class Americans may be our future legislators, they must begin in local seats.
This leads me to the conclusion that the majority of Americans want political representation of their wealth, however, the majority of Americans currently represented do not want a change of leaders. With our country on the verge of a possible movement towards improving democracy, people are not worried about a lack of politicians, the question that remains is whom will they represent. With the current presidential candidates, as well as incumbent members of Congress winning their primaries, I believe that the wealth stratification between federal legislators and the average citizen will worsen before change comes about.
With our current system attracting millionaires and billionaires into legislative careers, the future of public policy jobs may not have drastic changes in salaries, however, the “hiring” process will continue to prefer those who have more than comfortable net worths. As I begin my journey into a career in public policy, I want to be a part of the change towards more accurate representation. Through my year in ISM, I hope to begin exploring how people get involved in local politics. With the knowledge and continued pursuit through college, I want to encourage average Americans to involve themselves in political matters. The leanings towards an American plutocracy may appeal to those currently represented by more than half of Congress, but the majority of the public would rather have their neighbors representing them. Public opinion has sparked the growth of movements towards a Congress that represents the common man, but the future and success of these movements depends on a strong local political presence before change comes to Capitol Hill.
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