Are all American politicians on the take? At times, a glance at the headlines may give that impression. Democrats are suing President Trump for allegedly using his office to win more business from countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is facing trial, having been charged with accepting bribes. Republican Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) is being investigated for insider stock trading. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been criticized for being paid $69,000 to teach a political science class at Florida International University.
But new evidence from state financial records suggest that those high-profile accusations are the exception. Very few lawmakers get rich while in office. Only the most electorally secure are financially rewarded while serving. Even then, they do not make much money for their efforts. This contrasts with other recent scholarship, which largely focuses on the plum positions politicians take after they leave office. Little work has been done on whether lawmakers get richer while they’re still on the job.
I looked at state legislators because these politicians face a potent mix of incentives to use their offices for self-enriching activity. In most states, lawmakers work part time for low pay. When not conducting the people’s business, these men and women live just like everyone else — working, investing and saving for retirement. They don’t face media scrutiny or sustained public attention, particularly in a world of shrinking journalism budgets. At the same time, they wield enormous power over state budgets and set policy on matters including public health and attracting businesses.
And yet for the most part they don’t appear to be profiteering — which suggests that they’re in office for the public service.
I obtained from the Florida Commission on Ethics 2,905 annual financial disclosure forms of sitting members of the Florida House of Representatives from 1995 to 2014. Each form lists the name and precise dollar value of every asset, debt, income, stock dividend or student loan in the legislator’s name that year. You can find the forms from 2011-present here. Legislators who run afoul of Florida’s ethics requirements have been removed from office. To test which sitting lawmakers make money, I aggregated each legislator’s annual net income, adjusted for inflation. I looked at both annual income and annual income growth.
These legislators aren’t profiting from their offices; on average, they make just $403 more than they did the previous year.
I also gathered in-depth information about all these lawmakers, from their committee appointments to their private-sector backgrounds and looked to see whether these facts correlated with profit or loss. Did appointment to a particular committee boost income? Did becoming speaker of the house make one rich? I expected to find that lawmakers used their offices to forge connections in the private sector, finding new jobs or receive raises at existing jobs — as other scholars had found.
But surprisingly, Florida lawmakers did not boost their incomes while in office. Serving as chamber or party leader, or holding a seat on a prestigious committee, did not change income. In fact, being appointed to the Rules Committee — a stepping stone to become a future House leader — reduced income.
Here’s what did boost incomes: how well the lawmaker did in the previous election. As legislators’ became more electorally secure, their incomes rose. But those increases were quite small. Even if lawmakers’ vote shares grew substantially — say, from 60 percent to 100 percent of the vote — at most they would receive a 15 percent bump in income. For the average lawmaker, this amounted to $20,000 more a year. A more modest 10-point increase in their vote boosted income by just over $7,000.
While these sums are large amounts for the average American, it is not large for the average Florida legislator, many of whom are millionaires, like their counterparts in Congress, millionaires. Electorally secure politicians make money in modest quantities; income growth appears to be a result of a less-demanding reelection campaign. When politicians don’t have to cold-call donors four hours a day or spend hours a week cutting ads and glad-handing volunteers, they can focus more on their jobs.
I am working at investigating the conditions under which sitting lawmakers make money in greater detail. In one project, I collect financial disclosures from other states and Congress to see which institutional framework incentivizes lawmakers to make money. By examining the individual sources of income and individual bills proposed in Florida, I can see if lawmakers use the legislative process to become wealthy, as this article suggests occurs in Congress.
That said, we should not expect that most members of legislatures are probably on the take. Making money in office is rare. When politicians do manipulate their plum positions or political connections to get rich, citizens and the news media should not cynically dismiss such behavior as typical but treat it as an aberration.
Dr. Kevin Fahey is a Visiting Assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. from FSU in 2017, and studies political institutions and elite behavior. Dr. Fahey wrote about this issue for the Washington Post’s blog, Monkey Cage. Read it here.
The featured image is from the Beginner Bookkeeping website.