Brion McClanahan

While serving on the House Appropriations Committee, Nancy Pelosi used the mantra that, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” She was being honest, particularly in regard to what she “needed” from the United States taxpayer. Recent reports suggest that as Speaker of the House, Pelosi has racked up millions of taxpayer dollars in travel expenses on military aircraft for not only herself, but also family members unaccompanied by any congressional delegates. These expenses included booze and food for herself and her guests. It seems that many Americans shrug off this type of abuse of taxpayer dollars—the story has been virtually swept under the carpet—but the founding generation warned against this type of activity and at times made living very uncomfortable for members of Congress.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Roger Sherman of Connecticut observed that he “was not afraid that the legislature would make their own wages too high, but too low, so that men ever so fit could not serve, unless they were, at the same time, rich. He thought the best plan would be, to fix a moderate allowance [and]…moved that five dollars per day be the sum, any further emoluments to be added by the states.” This was the general consensus at the Convention. No one worried that the Congress would appropriate too high of a salary because they all generally understood that the public money should be carefully guarded and frugally spent. In fact, the first Congress appropriated a per diem rate of $6 or roughly $116 current dollars for time in session. If Congress met 200 days a year, that would equal a salary of approximately $23,000 current dollars, a figure that pales in comparison to the $174,000 current members earn for their service. And, Pelosi earns $223,000 for her role as Speaker of the House. Certainly, when the average American earns around $43,000 a year, this figure would exceed the “moderate allowance” Sherman and other members of the Convention conceptualized in 1787.

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Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author of "The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution" and the forthcoming "9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her."