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May 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Salary Linkage: "An Unfortunate Policy"

The report’s title says it best—“How to Pay the Piper: It’s Time to Call Different Tunes for Congressional and Judicial Salaries.” Released in April by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), the report describes linkage of judicial and congressional salaries as “an unfortunate policy mechanism,” and calls into question many of the commonly held assumptions on why linkage is good for both legislators and judges.

Now a group of former U.S. Senators and Representatives has called for Congress to end the practice. The group includes former Senators Howard Baker, John Danforth, and Sam Nunn, and former Representatives Richard Gephardt, Henry Hyde, Susan Molinari, Leon Panetta, and Louis Stokes.

Written by the Brookings Institution’s Russell R. Wheeler and AEI’s Michael S. Greve, the report delves into the history of interbranch salary linkage. Linkage in the report means district judges, members of Congress, deputy cabinet secretaries, and agency heads receive the same salary. Contrary to some expectations, linkage has not been consistent in the 116 years since the federal judicial system took its present form. As the report notes, “Only in 1987 did a firm member-judge linkage take hold.”

The report describes the federal judicial system and judges’ salaries, reviews the history of salary linkage, and considers arguments in support of linkage. And after weighing the case, the report’s authors conclude that linkage “has no bearing on the question of what salaries should be and, in fact, distorts the relevant considerations.”

In particular, their research found:

  • Linkage is a one-size-fits-all salary determination for officials with different responsibilities and career anticipations.
  • Data are at best inconclusive on whether linkage serves the practical justification offered for it—that it provides members greater salary increases than they could otherwise achieve.
  • Linkage has not kept subordinate salaries in check. Salaries for numerous Executive Branch staff are higher than the salaries for members, district judges, and deputy secretaries.
  • Linked salaries do not symbolize equality between the branches.
  • No jurisdiction similar to the United States requires salary linkage.
  • There is no evidence that informed public opinion supports linkage.

The complete report is available online at www.brookings.edu/views/papers/wheeler/20070418.htm.