In last week's post I made brief mention of the Wisconsin State Journal opinion page's latest lame crusade: harassing legislators into giving back their automatic 5.3% pay raises.
Perhaps the mention was too brief. Sure it's a dumb issue, but that doesn't mean it can't be instructive.
Indeed, a closer look at the State Journal's treatment of legislative pay shines a light on some of the lesser known forms and layers of governmental and punditory dishonesty.
Legislators have arranged to have their salaries increased automatically so that they do not have to take an up-or-down vote on the issue in every session. Such a voting trail would give sustenance to non-incumbent challengers everywhere. If there is one thing incumbent legislators of all political stripes have in common it is an acute interest in protecting the advantages of incumbency. For more examples of this phenomenon, see "redistricting" and "campaign finance reform."
Maybe the State Journal opinion page has alluded to this phenomenon when condemning legislators who are not giving back their pay increases and celebrating those who are, but if so then it is not exactly leading with it. Instead it leads with the idea that in tough economic times we must all sacrifice. Legislators should set good examples. That sort of thing.
Not only is that boring-role models?-it is also horse manure. Hiding behind this kind of automatic process is just as deceptive in good economic times, when the State Journal says nothing about it, as it is in a recession.
The legislators' $88 per diem ($44 for those who represent Dane County) is even more deceptive, as it allows lawmakers to pad their incomes by as much as $20,000 per year or more while pretending they are simply being reimbursed for their traveling expenses.
Some people believe legislators should be well paid because they believe wages and benefits are an incentive for talented individuals to vie for the positions. At present, a Wisconsin legislator's compensation includes just less than $50,000 a year in salary, an $88 per diem every day he or she drives to work, and better-than-average health insurance and pension benefits. Whether this is enough to attract talented people to the job is an open question.
Either way, this is at least a viable economic argument. If legislators believe it then they should say so. If a newspaper wants to draw attention to legislative compensation this is the discussion into which it should try to draw its readers.
Instead, some legislators loudly give back their raises to the state or to charity and others do what every other worker in the world would do: keep them. The ones who cave in to the State Journal's browbeating and note their own sacrifice in self-issued news releases the newspaper calls "leaders."
The Capital Times's Dave Zweifel has also criticized the pay raise, as has FightingBob.com publisher and blogger Ed Garvey. Both men connected the pay raise to the idea of cutting the Legislature back to part-time. Since the body is sometimes in recess up to six months at a time it is pretty much a part-time job already. And, Zweifel says, removing the material incentive of a full-time job from the re-election equation would also remove some of the incentive for raising big campaign dollars and all the conflicts of interest that accompany it.
Zweifel talked about this issue on Wisconsin Public Radio a couple months ago, and that one-hour discussion with Joy Cardin and the handful of thoughtful listeners who called in was 10 times more meaningful than all the State Journal opinion pieces put together.
At this time I should disclose that I believe Wisconsin's Legislature is a crushingly mediocre and hapless body, and has been for quite a long time. I'm not disagreeing with the State Journal because I think legislators deserve rewards for doing a great job.
Our state's Republicans are the most right-wing in the Midwest, and even give the wingers in the West and the Deep South a run for their money. Our once-proud state passed one of the nation's most restrictive and discriminatory anti-gay union laws a few years ago. And the idiotic Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) proposal came closer to passing here than it did anywhere else but Colorado (where it actually did pass).
Our legislative Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be even better than Democrats elsewhere at paralyzing themselves with their own cleverness and allowing Republicans to define the terms of debate on bogus issues like gay marriage and TABOR.
No, the State Journal's crusade is lamentable because it is essentially telling the same lies the politicians tell, for essentially the same reasons: They want their constituents to like them. In the newspapers' case the constituents are the customers, and the paper is pandering to the lowest common denominator in the same way that politicians do.
Dustin Beilke is a union organizer and a freelance writer who lives in Madison.