How Would a Pay Raise Affect Lawmaker Performance and Legislative Diversity?

If academic research findings apply here, any decision to give our lawmakers a raise is best based on recognition of their hard work in the service of Minnesota citizens rather than on an expectation that our legislature would look or perform differently.

Last November, by over a 4 to 1 margin, Minnesota citizens stripped lawmakers of their authority to establish their own compensation levels and passed that responsibility on to a new Legislative Salary Council.  The 16-member council has two members from each of the state’s congressional districts, with representation split evenly between the DFL and GOP, and the governor and chief justice of the state supreme court each appoint 8 of the members.  The council must prescribe salaries for legislators by March 31st which will then take effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year.

State legislator compensation levels differ dramatically around the country ranging from essentially volunteer work to salaries resembling what full-time white collar professionals would expect.  Such diversity begs the question of whether or not legislative compensation levels influence various legislative outcomes, overall productivity, or perhaps the actual make up of state legislative bodies.  In preparation for a recent presentation to the Legislative Salary Council, we took a look at what scholars have concluded on the relationship between legislative pay and these issues.

Getting What You Pay For

The composition and performance of legislative bodies has been an irresistible topic for political science researchers for many decades, so it’s not surprising compensation and its influence has been part of this growing body of empirical research.  Studies have found associations between legislative compensation and a wide variety of issues.  Some findings are quite intuitive: when legislators are paid more they are less likely to pursue outside employment when in office1 and more likely to run for reelection.2  Other studies have found that higher pay is associated greater electoral competition,3 more party involvement in recruiting candidates,4 and even a greater tendency to favor citizen interests over business interests.5

With respect to the legislative process itself, one interesting study found that higher pay reduced the rate of delegation of policy making to state agency staff.6  Lawmaking comes in a continuum of forms ranging from broad language conveying general legislative intent to highly detailed and prescriptive language attempting to address most every possible administrative detail and enforcement circumstance.  In the former case, states must rely more on administrative rulemaking processes and experts in executive branch agencies to put “meat on the bones” with respect to interpreting, administering, and enforcing the law itself.  This study found that the more legislators are paid, the less reliance there is on administrative rulemaking and experts in the state bureaucracy to interpret and apply the law.

All of these findings suggest there are important relationships between how much we pay legislators and the kind of government we get in return.  But some new studies have taken the next step to focus specifically on what compensation does or does not accomplish regarding individual legislator performance and whether greater economic diversity among lawmakers can be supported by higher pay.

Pay for Performance?

Legislator performance can be evaluated with respect to both productivity and behaviors.  An exceptionally ambitious 2013 study took on both these performance dimensions using 60 years of data on state legislators.7  With respect to productivity, the researchers examined both bills passed and participation in roll call voting.  (Fun fact:  failing to show up for roll call votes is called “participatory shirking” in political science literature.)  In both cases, researchers found statistically significant results linking increasing legislator pay to improved rates of bill passage and decreased numbers of missed votes.  However, in each case the actual impact itself was extremely small.  For example, a 100% increase in salary increased the share of bills passed by only 1%, and decreased the probability of a missed vote by just 2%.

With respect to legislative behavior, researchers found that higher pay caused legislators to increase the time spent on both fundraising and constituent services.  Why?  Because the study also found that higher pay was likely to cause legislative candidates to face more competition.  And notably, the time devoted to these activities seems to come at the expense of some other important legislative work.  The study found a negative relationship between pay levels and time spent studying proposed legislation, building coalitions within a party and a highly significant but negative relationship between pay and efforts to build coalitions across parties.

The link between pay and legislator characteristics and outcomes was also very weak.  The same study found no discernible effect from pay levels on state legislators’ gender, race, age, education, or experience.  Higher pay did not reduce levels of political corruption.  And there were no apparent impacts on the actual fiscal outcomes.  Neither state expenditures nor taxes per capita nor income per capita demonstrated a statistically significant relationship with pay levels, leading researchers to conclude, “there is no evidence that paying higher salary helps improve fiscal discipline.”  All in all the researchers question the role of salaries as a meaningful influence on legislative performance and conclude, “Our results lend caution to common claims that increasing politician salary would significantly increase the quality of U.S state government.”

A More Representative Legislature?

An alternative reason often cited for increasing legislator pay is to improve the economic diversity and  reduce barriers for middle- and working-class individuals to serve as legislators.  Less flexible work schedules and less savings can make serving in office simply unaffordable.  The previous study offers a potential counterpoint to this argument: higher pay makes legislative office more competitive.  As a result, higher pay may attract an even larger number of individuals from higher wealth, white-collar professional demographics.

A 2016 study by scholars from Duke University and the University of North Carolina examined whether legislative pay levels have an impact on the economic diversity of state legislatures.8  Their findings and conclusions are in stark contrast to much of the conventional wisdom surrounding this topic:

  • In states that pay legislators higher salaries, working class citizens make up smaller shares of the state legislature, not larger ones.   Political representation of workers is worst in states with salaries over $75,000 (about 2% of all legislators) and best in state that pay legislators next to nothing (about 7% of all legislators). For reference, working class (defined as manual labor, service industry, clerical, and union jobs) represents about 52% of the general public.
  • Simple findings like these can hide or distort deeper relationships that may exist.  As a result, the researchers conducted numerous statistical tests to see if various factors influenced the findings.   These included state demographic features (e.g., measures of state economic inequality, poverty rates, degree of urbanization, unionization rates, etc.) political characteristics (e.g. cost of state campaigns, existence of term limits, distance to state capitol, partisan composition of legislature, competitiveness of state parties, etc.) and economic considerations ( e.g. per capita income, size of state budget, average per capita income, etc).  After examining and controlling for these variables, their original findings remained unchanged – and in many cases were strengthened.  The researchers concluded, “Regardless of how we analyzed the data, we consistently found states that offer higher salaries to their legislators have fewer working class politicians, not more.”
  • Higher pay does do one thing – attract career politicians.  States that pay more to legislators are more likely to attract people that work exclusively in politics.  And although this “career politician” path might be considered an avenue to increased economic diversity, the researchers found “career politicians with working class backgrounds are no more likely to run, win and run again in states that pay more.”

The conclusion of this investigation throws a rather large wet blanket on the idea legislative pay has potentially transformative power on legislative representation.  As the authors rather bluntly state regarding the lesson of this study, “Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make holding office more accessible for middle- and working-class Americans or that it would reduces class–based political inequities. It probably wouldn’t.”

What does all this mean for Minnesota’s legislative salary decision-making?  Studies like these are not last word on this topic but they do suggest that any big expectations about different legislative results or a different composition of legislators resulting from higher legislative pay need to be ratcheted back.  The decision to give our lawmakers a raise is best based on recognition of their hard work and dedication in the service of Minnesota citizens rather than on an expectation that our government will look or act differently.

  • 1 “Working Outside of the House (and Senate): Opportunity Costs and Outside Careers in U.S. State Legislatures,” Maddox, Legislative Studies Quarterly 29, 2004
  • 2 “A Political Economy Model of Congressional Careers,” Diermeier, Keane and Merlo, American Economic Review, 2005
  • 3 “Do Higher Salaries Lead to Higher Performance?  Evidence From State Politicians” Hoffman and Lyons, October 2015
  • 4 “Where Women Run: Gender and Party in the American States” Sanbonmatsu, University of Michigan Press, 2006
  • 5 “The Voter’s Blunt Tool” Bowen and Mo, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 2016
  • 6 “Experts, Amateurs, and Bureaucratic Influence in the American States”, Boushey and McGrath, 2015
  • 7 “Do Higher Salaries Lead to Higher Performance?  Evidence From State Politicians” Hoffman and Lyons, University of Toronto, October 2015
  • 8 “Does Paying Politicians More Promote Economic Diversity in Legislatures?” Carnes and Hansen, American Political Science Review, November, 2016