Congressional Staff Salaries on the Web

An independent company has launched a web site providing internet access to public information about the salaries paid to congressional staff. (Hat tip: Political Wire).

This is another excellent example of what I see as a downside of the digitization of information and its availability on the internet. I have written before (6 U. Penn. J. Const. Law 1, for those with Westlaw or Lexis) that disclosure of modest campaign contributions exacts a privacy cost on individual donors with very little discernible benefit in terms of public information. Your nosy neighbors (and blind dates and job interviewers and people in your church) can use sites like this and this to easily snoop your politicial contributions. But knowing that I gave money to John Kerry’s campaign tells you a lot about me and essentially nothing about Kerry.

I see this salary snoop database as much the same. Mind you, we are not talking here about money paid to elected officials or highly placed political figures. It might be different if this were the members of Congress themselves (whose salaries are set by statute) or perhaps their most senior aides. Can it really matter to “the public interest” precisely how much a senator or representative pays the twentysomethings who toil in a legislative office answering the mail or tracking the activities of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation? When I worked on Capitol Hill as one of those twentysomethings, the fact that my salary was public rankled, but at least it was not available to the casual web surfer. (Most common use: other aides seeking comparative info for leverage in salary negotiations. How’d you like to run a private company with that feature?)

Back then, to find out my salary someone had to go to the trouble of looking the figure up in a big printed book housed in a congressional office. The internet obliterates that speedbump and makes this private information permanently and easily accessible to the public. It thus raises the stakes when, as a policy matter, we disclose personal information in the name of laudable goals such as governmental openness. If the benefits are worth it, then that’s fine, but too often we assume sunshine is healthy and ignore privacy. How many of us would like to have our salary available on the internet? (As an employee of a state university, my salary is also a matter of public record, but to my knowledge no one has digitized it and put it online — yet). And the benefit served here, beyond an abstract notion that transparency is always good, remains hazy.

Sunshine sure is popular, though. So much so that heavy traffic quickly brought the new site’s servers down. How many think that all those hits came, not from Beltway gossips, but from average citizens engaged in sober analysis of the manner in which taxpayer dollars are allotted to congressional staff?

4 Responses to “Congressional Staff Salaries on the Web”

  1. I’m a bit torn on this one. In general, I’m a big fan of the Solove-ian Virtues of Knowing LEss (to quote his article on the topic). BUt perhaps the value of the site lies in investigative potential–if we see some staffer livign “high on the hog,” that may raise alarm bells and lead journalists to figure out how that person got the money.

    Unfortunately, the only people immune from scrutiny will be the independently wealthy.

  2. Frank:

    I, too, am a Solovian (Dan should be pleased his name is getting adjectivized!), as in this post. I think a key point is that you have to consider the real-world — not just the theoretical — advantages of the contemplated disclosure. In your example, we know the maximum amount a staff member is permitted to earn: they can’t earn more than the members of Congress themselves, which is $165,200. That’s a decent sum of money, but hardly enough (especially in an expensive city like DC) for staffers to live so visibly “high on the hog” that Lois Lane is going to start investigating whether they are on the take. In other words, the general data we already have will be sufficient to allow for your example without requiring specific individual data on which congressional receptionists make $20K and which ones make $30K.

  3. Anytime anyone is directly or indirectly receiving tax payer dollars, their salary and benefits should be published for everyone to see.

    I have always contented that salary is hidden, because the exposure of someone’s salary shows the dispairty that occurs in salaries of individuals performing the same job or between varies groups (for example line staff and management, management and corporation officers, staff salary differences between divisions or states).

    If you don’t want the exposure, turn down the job.

  4. […] in September 2006 I expressed skepticism about the posting of all congressional staff salaries by a web site called LegiStorm. At the time I […]