Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1

Document 17

House of Representatives, Reduction of Salaries

27 Jan. 1795Annals 4:1136--45

Mr. Claiborne: We now have fairly before us a proposition that contemplates a redress of these grievances, which, since the adoption of the present form of Government, have been a subject of grievous complaint and heartburning amongst the citizens of the United States. Many of them and, I believe, a very great majority, conceive that the exorbitant salaries established to the Legislative, Executive, Judiciary, and their assistants, are not consistent with, or can possibly contribute to the existence or well-being of a Republican Government, which, in its nature, holds out the idea of equality and justice, but which, in the present mode of administration, cannot fail to have a direct opposite tendency, inasmuch as the very profuse salaries that all who have the good fortune to get places under the pay and influence of the present Administration, if they make a prudent use of them, must ultimately enrich and place them in a situation so far above the vast bulk of the citizens, whose industrious fingers are not permitted a single dip into those very coffers which have been swelled by filching a little from that hard-gotten pittance already far inadequate to the necessary but very ordinary subsistence of their families, as at last to endanger the very existence or shadow of this glorious and dear-bought Government, that has already raised the drooping and once-dejected heads of the poor American citizens, who now glory more in having thrown off that subordination that was assumed and exercised over them under the late detestable Monarchical Government, by their rulers, or public officers, than even in their lives and fortunes. Men begin to know the inherent rights of human nature. They have dipped into and tasted a little of the sweets of political regeneration, and, amongst all classes of your citizens, you may discover a zeal that amounts to enthusiasm, that lives and burns and grows almost to a prodigy. Instances are not wanting, sir, to evince that thousands of those who were not fond of this Government at its adoption, are now, on all occasions, ready to step forth in its support, and the laws that are passed consistent therewith. But this does, by no means, argue that they will submit forever to repeated abuses of the Government, which may ultimately tend to its overthrow; and exorbitant salaries, with other profuse appropriations of the public money, at a time when the nation is groaning under an immense weight of foreign and domestic debt, which, (calculating upon the blessings of peace, and, of course, a very increasing revenue, not reasonably to be calculated on so long a time,) it is agreed on all hands will take a term not less than thirty-two years to extinguish. They conceive this to be one of those abuses, and, vested with the rights of freemen, closely interwoven with the obligations of good citizens and lovers of their country, have ventured, by divers ways, to suggest their disapprobation thereof, in hope that its glaring impropriety would be taken up and removed, as far as the present situation of our finances and the public good will admit. It is true, they have not come forward in the Constitutional mode, by petition, &c., but no member in this House will, I presume, say that they have not heard the loud clamors and complaints of the people on this subject. But perhaps I shall be answered that I am not charged with their petitions to make the proposition, and, if I was, that the people are not proper judges whether the salaries complained of are more than adequate, and to prove that some of them have not been so, I shall be told that the allowances to two of your most valuable officers have been so inadequate as to drive them out of your service. To this, I answer, that many other officers, with as large families, and a much less salary, have not abandoned your service--and why, sir? Permit me to answer, because they have probably proportioned their style of living to their quantum of salary, which prudence dictates, or custom has established, through all ranks of your citizens; else whence comes it that twenty-five thousand dollars per annum is not too much for the President of the United States? Five thousand dollars is enough for the Vice President, two thousand one hundred and ninety for a member of Congress; and the salaries of many of your valuable officers, who have families, and devote their whole time to your service, are as low as five hundred dollars per annum. Here I shall again be told, that the price of house-rent, and every other necessary of life, has increased, and may continue to increase, so as to drive all your officers out of your service. To this, I beg leave to answer, that, if you continue such high salaries, or increase them, as in some instances it is asked, and because of the present enhanced price of the necessaries of life, I think the evil will increase in proportion to the immense sum of money that you throw into circulation, for a redundancy of that, or any thing else, will always diminish the value; and, if the present custom of disbursing the public money is persisted in, the whole wealth of the United States must shortly centre in and about Philadelphia! But, sir, by the adoption of public economy, we may shortly become able to obviate this great evil, and make our disbursements more diffusive, by paying out money to those who have demands upon your justice, distributed over the United States, if any but those who reside around the Seat of Government have any demand upon your justice or goodness. I am apprised that the proposition is a very unpopular one here, and that many will perhaps knit their brows at me; but, sir, when I entered into public life, it was without any cringing views. I meant not to court smiles, or fear frowns, and I had no doubt but I should meet my share of both. When I gain the former by proper conduct, I have pleasure in it; when the latter by improper conduct, I am sorry for it. But it will be much to be lamented if ever we see the day when the people shall be suffered to complain from year to year of any grievance, and their Representatives shall be ashamed, or afraid, to make those grievances known, or ask redress, lest they be laughed out of countenance, or lose favor at Court. But so hardy am I, if you prefer that expression, that, while I have the honor of a seat in this House, none of those considerations shall ever deter me from stepping forth in their behalf; but, be the result of this proposition what it may, I now warn you against evils that may come, as you have been heretofore warned of evils that have come, for the obligations of power and submission are reciprocal. It is as much your duty to pass wholesome laws, as it is the duty of the people to obey them. And now, having done my duty, I shall take my seat, content to abide the result, but hope a committee will be appointed.

Mr. Nicholas declared that he would be very willing to vote for the appointment of such a committee, if he could see any good purpose to be derived from it, or if the gentleman who laid the resolution on the table could give him any information that tended to prove its expediency. For his own part, he had but a small family, and of that he had left one-half behind him in Virginia, yet he found that his allowance as a member of the Legislature was barely sufficient for supporting this half of his family, though he lived with as much economy as he ever had done in his life. He was certain that he should not take one shilling of public money home with him to Virginia. He requested gentlemen to remember that it was not the present Congress who had given six dollars per day to themselves, but that it had been fixed by their predecessors, and fixed at a time when living was fifty per cent cheaper than it is now.

Mr. Boudinot observed, that he should not have troubled the Committee on this question, had it not been for several considerations particularly applicable to himself. He was as impartial on the present debate as any member on the floor. After the close of this session of Congress, he never expected to receive a farthing of public money again, and therefore no interest of his own could sway his judgment improperly to object against the resolution on the table. He had been among the number of those members who originally were for fixing the compensation of members of Congress at a less sum than six dollars; not because he thought it beyond the amount of their expenses, but, from an idea of the then deranged state of the finances, and that, if sacrifices were to be made, they should begin with this House. He appealed to his uniform conduct for six years past, to prove that he had always opposed an increase of salaries or other public expenses, when the interest of the Union did not require it. He did not doubt that the gentleman who brought forward this resolution thought he was doing his duty in advocating it; and Mr. B. thought it was equally the duty of the Committee to be convinced that they were not wasting their time in unnecessarily proceeding in business, without having some foundation for rational inquiry. The gentleman had declared that he was led to bring forward the resolution, not from any conviction of his own, for he knew not the officer to whom he could point his finger and say, that he had a greater salary than he deserved, but it was from the voice of the people, who were discontented and clamorous on the subject of large salaries, and particularly the compensation to members of Congress. Mr. B. said, for his own part, he did not believe these objections arose from the voice of the people. Had the gentleman offered any evidence of this to the Commitee? That he believed it himself, Mr. B. did not doubt; but this ought not to be sufficient evidence to the Committee. There was none on the table. Not a single petition had come forward to the House on this subject. There was nothing in the complexion of our Government that prevented the application of the people to their Representatives, if they were dissatisfied. They had frequently rechosen the same members, who voted for this compensation. From whence, then, arose the evidence of the public voice, being clamorous against the compensation of the members of Congress?

Mr. B. did not doubt but there were uninformed individuals, who might object to six dollars per day; but he was confident that the well-informed among the citizens of the United States, and those who reflected on the subject, would think (at the present day at least) it was not more than would barely pay the reasonable expenses of gentlemen who attended to their duty here in a proper manner. Almost every article of consumption was from twenty to thirty per cent. higher now than it was at the commencement of the Government.

The Constitution of the United States, as the act of the people and the public voice, contemplated a compensation to the members of Congress. Did not this mean something more than the bare discharge of their expenses? Yet Congress had not gone beyond it.

When Congress sat at New York, Mr. B. said that he was in a situation more favorable in point of expense than any gentleman on the floor, who did not reside in that city. He boarded with a near relation, and was in a manner in his own family; and, although he paid the usual price of boarding as at other places, yet there were a thousand nameless small articles which saved him many advances. He was within sixteen miles of his own family, from whence he received many things that prevented his laying out money. During three sessions, he kept an exact and faithful account of his expenditures, and, at the end of that time, the balance was but 43s. 4d.; but on which side of the question his memory did not allow him to say. At present, he was also under very peculiar advantages, yet he was confident that, at the end of the session, he should not have any balance in his favor from his compensation as a member. Mr. B. appealed to every gentleman's own knowledge, and particularly to the gentleman who made the motion, if he thought that what he received would more than pay his expenses.

Gentlemen were often crying out against an Aristocracy in this country; yet measures of this kind tended to establish one, by reducing the compensation of members, so that no citizen but the rich and affluent could attend as a Representative in Congress. This certainly was the most effectual way of bringing about a dangerous Aristocracy in the United States. Should not men of abilities, though in the middle walks of life, be encouraged to come forward and yield their services to their country, without being dependent on any person or set of men whatever? Is it not sufficient that their time and talents are given to the public? Must they pay their expenses too?

Mr. B. was aware that the resolution proposed related to the officers of Government as well as members of Congress, but he had confined his remarks to the last, as the part of the subject he was best acquainted with. He begged gentlemen to look around and point out the public officer who received more than a reasonable reward for his services. Professional men, of the first abilities, were absolutely necessary to carry on the public business; and could any one, fit for his office, be shown who could not do full as well, if not much better, in the exercise of his profession in private life, than he did in the public service, if pecuniary matters were his only object? In short, (Mr. B. said,) this House was placed between Scylla and Charybdis. The public officers were complaining, and even resigning, for want of sufficient compensation for their services; on the other hand, an attempt was now made to reduce their salaries still lower, on the supposed clamors of the people. Mr. B. did not believe they could be denominated those of the people; neither did he see any evidence of the fact. He did not consider the complaints of a few individuals as the public voice. Ought not the gentlemen to come forward with some kind of calculations or estimates to have shown that certain salaries were too high, or more than the services performed were entitled to? This had not been done; but the Committee were urged, at this important moment, to proceed to an inquiry, which every gentleman on the floor already knew as well as he could do by the most labored investigation. He therefore concluded that, to agree to the resolution, would be a waste of the short time that yet remained of the session, and an unwise measure. Mr. B. would have contented himself with joining the Committee in a silent vote on this subject, but he thought the observations made in support of the measure ought to receive some answer, if not to convince the Committee, yet to satisfy their constituents that there could exist no necessity for a present inquiry of this nature.

Mr. Claiborne begged leave to remind the House that he had never asserted the salaries were too high. His motion went only to appointing a committee for an inquiry whether the salaries were so or not.

Mr. W. Smith said, that the resolution was, in its present shape, so extremely vague, that one did not know how to give it a definition or a vote. Different objects were lumped together. If, by an inquiry, the gentleman meant to examine into the wages of members of this House, it was quite needless to appoint a committee, because every member can at this moment speak for himself. But Mr. S. did not consider the present time as the most proper for beginning to reduce salaries, when, within the last twelve months, there had been three resignations, viz: the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Treasury, and all chiefly for one reason, the smallness of the salary. I have no doubt (said Mr. S.) of there being complaints, and, if the salary was reduced to three dollars per day, there would be still complaints, as we see is the case with the members of the Legislature of Pennsylvania. He only wished that the Committee would rise, and he should then vote in the House that they might not have leave to sit again. The mover of this resolution had mentioned the danger of meeting with reproaches from the people, who thought their salaries too high. Mr. S. saw very little in this matter, because the people who railed at the salary of six dollars per day, were only anxious to get in themselves, and embraced this topic as an expedient of ousting those members whom they wanted to succeed.

Mr. Goodhue wished to ask Mr. Claiborne one question, "Whether he found himself growing rich?"

Mr. Sedgwick saw no occasion for rising because the Committee were perfectly competent at this moment to determine the question.

Mr. Rutherford was for reducing the salaries by one dollar per day, and one dollar every twenty-five miles that the members had to travel. This would be a reduction of one hundred dollars per day, which would be much better bestowed upon the innocent widow of the veteran who had fallen in the service of his country.

Mr. Page said, that he did not think the resolution as it was worded, was a proper subject for discussion in that place; for the House, and not a committee, could properly resolve that committees should be appointed. However, as the resolution had been submitted by the House to the consideration of the Committee of the Whole, it must be examined; but, as to the object of it, that he thought was more properly before the Committee, as proposed by the resolution; for, as I have remarked on other occasions, if, instead of discussing a question fully, and collecting the sense of all the members in a Committee of the Whole, it be referred to a committee of one member from each State, that committee might be unanimous in favor of a resolution, against which, eighteen members from Virginia, and a proportionate number from other States, might vote; or, by the weight of that committee, the resolution might be carried, which could not have passed had it been fully and freely discussed in the House. Here, then, my colleague's question should be examined, as I cannot say (as has been said by one of them) that I had no hand in fixing the salaries and pay of the officers of Government and members of Congress, having actually voted at New York for them as they now stand. I think I may with propriety, give my opinion respecting it. And I am clearly of opinion, sir, that the question arises from a misapprehension of the subject to which it is applied; for there cannot be a greater mistake than to suppose that parsimony in a Republic is necessary to its support. A certain degree of economy is so; but parsimony, applied to the salaries of public officers, and the Representatives in particular, may be ruinous to the interests of a Republic. Should the salaries be so low that men of small fortunes cannot afford to serve their country, it must be deprived of their assistance, and we must accept of the services of the rich, who, to have their wills, though low, will serve even without pay; or, the State will be served by artful demagogues, by ready, designing men, who may, in pursuit of profit as well as popularity, cut out places for themselves and friends, producing at length confusion and anarchy, or, at least, such a bungling system of legislation as will cost more time and money to rectify their blunders than the most extravagant salaries could amount to. What true Republican could wish to exclude from a seat in Congress a physician, lawyer, merchant, farmer, or any other person possessed of such well-known abilities and virtues as to attract the attention and respect of a district which might wish to intrust its interests to him as a Representative? Or, rather, who ought not to desire that, as all offices are open to all, that the son of the poorest citizen might be enabled, if qualified, to fill a seat here or elsewhere, to do it without sacrificing his private interest? Is it reasonable to expect that men should sacrifice domestic ease and the interests of their families to serve their country? It is not just to require it. Human nature, except on great and trying occasions, cannot obey such a requisition. My colleague says that he is not a man of fortune; but, has he not a profession by which he can make more than by his attendance on this House? If not, he has not a right to require such a sacrifice of any other person's time and talents. The Constitution, far from requiring any thing like it, demands that compensation shall be made for all services; and who will desire less for services than a mere subsistence for a person whilst actually employed in such service? I am sure that less than the present pay of members of Congress would not, in their present situation, be a subsistence. I recollect that, when the House of Representatives were debating, in the first session, at New York, whether their daily pay should be four, five, or six dollars, I affirmed that the expences of the members where I boarded required that it should be six, that the State of Virginia having once allowed her Delegates to Congress eight dollars, and never less than six, when she bore the whole expense, could not object to her Representatives receiving that sum, when divided, as it was, amongst the States, and spread out over the various duties and taxes of the United States. I asked those, as I might ask my colleague now, who of our constituents could calculate what he would save by any proposed reduction of our pay? I have long suspected, sir, that Republics have lost more by parsimony than they were aware of, and that a misapprehension of some practices in ancient Republics has been artfully kept up, so as to favor Aristocracy and Monarchy. The British Parliament has now no pay; but have they been as independent as their countrymen wished them under the British Government?

The Upper House of the Legislature, which was also the Supreme Court and Privy Council, had a moderate salary, and would never consent to have it raised, that it might be no object to men of small fortunes. But we are told that there is discontent amongst some of our constituents respecting the high salaries of certain officers of Government, as well as of the members of Congress. I am sorry to hear it; but I hope that when they reconsider the subject of their complaint, they will find that it was founded on mistaken ideas of what is the real interest of a Government like this. I believe such a dissatisfaction is subsiding. I know that I was informed that some of my constituents had objected to my re-election on account of my votes at New York for high salaries; but I was re-elected by a great majority of votes in a district of ten counties, and have been again elected by a district composed of six other counties--that county in which I was born, and have always resided, being the only one which made a part of the former district of ten--and yet I have heard no complaints respecting our six dollars: on the contrary, I have been often told they were a moderate compensation. Had my constituents furnished me with intructions to vote for a reduction of it, I should have obeyed them. Had they sent by me remonstrances, such as my colleague says may be heaped upon your table, I should have laid them there; but I should never again ask them for a seat in the House. I should wish to retire.

In reply to the member who had objected to the pay of the Speaker, and the difference between the pay of members of the two Houses, Mr. P. said, that whoever would consider the duty of the Speaker; his long confinement to the Chair; his painful attention to every word spoken in the House, and his responsibility for the correctness of the Journals--an examination of which must take up much of his time--would surely not think his pay too great. As to the difference between the pay of a Senator and Representative, he had voted for it, from a belief that a Senator having more services to perform than a Representative, had a right to more pay. The Senate not only have to originate bills as this House has, and to revise and amend bills sent from hence, and often to correct the careless errors they contain, but to make themselves acquainted with the Law of Nations, and to be prepared to judge of Treaties; and also of offences brought before them by impeachments. When the Senators may have gone through the labors of a long session, and the Representatives are returning home, they may be called upon to consider certain nominations to offices, or certain Treaties; and at another time to try certain impeachments. Besides all this, the age of a Senator must be such, by the Constitution, that it is probable that his family is larger, and his pursuits in life more fixed and profitable than those of a Representative, who may be elected when only twenty-five, and therefore his services must require higher compensation. As to the President and Vice President's salaries, I voted for a larger sum than was allowed to either, and thought that the disproportion between them was too great. With respect to the judges, I still think their salaries too small, and so should every one think who will consider the vast importance of their office; the labor of both mind and body which it requires; the laborious course of study through which a man must have gone to be qualified for it, and the lucrative employment such an one must have given up to undertake it. In short, I do not recollect a salary which I think too high. And I must repeat it, that I do not think that large salaries in a Republic can injure it; but that small, inadequate salaries may overturn a Republic.

I am sorry that the question has been brought before us respecting our own pay this session because the elections in Virginia are not over; it would become us much better another session, if re-elected, to reduce it, than to do so when we may be left out. Besides, if I vote for a reduction. I may be suspected of courting popularity; and, if against it, of despising the opinions of my constituents, if they have adopted those which some members tell us prevail amongst their constituents. I do not like to be in such a dilemma, nor to have my independence unnecessarily tried. I wish, as the question is before us, that it may be fully debated here, and even referred to the further consideration of a select committee; because I think the opinions even of a single member and his district should be treated with respect; and that when they have been fairly proved to be founded in error, there will be an end of complaints, and an acquiescence in the decision of this House.

Mr. Gillespie proposed an amendment, the scope of which was, that a committee should be appointed to examine and report whether any and what alterations were necessary in the act fixing salaries to the officers under Government. He suggested this amendment from no motive whatever but what was fair. There had been, and there still was, a degree of clamor upon the subject, and it was the duty of the House to pay attention to the voice of the public, whether right or wrong. If, upon investigation, it should appear that the salaries were not higher than they ought to be, then the report of the Committee would be the best method for stopping the public clamor.

Mr. Claiborne hoped that the Committee would not rise, but decide the point. He trusted that no gentleman would again point at him, and say that that the motion came out of his brain. There was not one officer under Government whom he would point out and say, that such an officer had too high a salary. He had expectations that this discussion, by bringing forward the observations of several gentlemen, would in some degree satisfy the people, and that there would be no more pointing out with a finger and saying, "There goes a six-dollars-a-day man."

Another member observed, that it was the duty of the House to attend to the voice of their constituents, and for this reason, he should vote for a Committee. He would mention what he had always considered as a most odious distinction, the additional dollar per day, which is to be paid to the Senate from and after the 4th of March next. [The reader will observe, that by the act, members of the Senate were to have seven dollars per day, but the additional dollar was not to commence till the lapse of six years, when all the Senators of the first Congress had gone out.] There was another thing for which he never could see any reason, and that was the giving of twelve dollars per day to the Speaker.

Mr. Giles was perfectly convinced that the allowance to the members is small enough already. The saving of a dollar per day suggested by Mr. Rutherford, would be but little, and it was beginning at the worst of resources. The pay ought to be such as would bring persons of middling circumstances into the House; persons neither too high in life nor too low. If the pay was greatly reduced, none but very rich people could afford to give their attendance, and if too high, a seat in the House might be an object to persons of an opposite description. Formerly the State of Virginia allowed eight dollars per day to the members of its Legislature. This sum had since been reduced to six dollars. Mr. G. mentioned this to show that in the practice of individual States, there might be found a precedent for the allowance to members of Congress. He was for voting directly. Mr. G. said, that there was a country from which America had copied a great deal, and very often too much; a country which still had a very pernicious influence in the United States. The members of the British House of Commons received no wages, while the officers of State had immense salaries. It was, however understood, that the British House of Commons were very well paid for the trouble of their attendance. Mr. G. did not wish to see scenes of that kind in this country.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

Annals of Congress. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States. "History of Congress." 42 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1834--56.

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