The Hamilton scandal tells us it’s time to overhaul the General Assembly.

Phil HamiltonDelegate Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) is in a lot of trouble for ethics violations, and rightly so. FOIAd e-mailed records show that Hamilton had Old Dominion University hire him as a consultant, using funding he’d allocated from the state budget, contingent on the earmark going through. Basically, he put in an earmark for himself, funneling it through ODU. That’s such a clear ethics violation that his fellow Republican, Speaker Bill Howell, has already asked the House Ethics committee to investigate, and the party’s leaders are lining up to declare that Hamilton has to resign.

There’s really nothing to debate here—Hamilton is clearly, totally in the wrong—which is precisely why Republicans feel so comfortable throwing him to the wolves.

(Incidentally, there’s no evidence right now that there’s anything about Hamilton’s behavior that indicates that his party membership has anything to do with it. There’s no reason to suspect that he collaborated with other Republicans on this, that there was a cover-up, and this is not a practice that is consistent with conservatism. Though I must confess there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude found in a supposed small-government Republican expanding government to employ himself.)

What’s interesting about this is that it shines a light on a long-standing problem of the General Assembly: we don’t pay legislators nearly enough for the work that we expect of them.

Phil Hamilton is going to lose his seat—and maybe worse—over a $40,000/year part-time job. We’re not talking about millions. Or a meaningful fraction of a million dollars. This is the sort of salary somebody can pull down managing a department of Sears. Why would Hamilton risk so much for so little money?

The answer to that is probably pretty simple: he has bills to pay, just like the rest of us. Though unlike you and me, he’s a member of the legislature, meaning that he has a job that occupies at least half of his time. And not half of his time in a convenient way, like Monday through Friday, 8 AM through noon, or two ten-hour shifts on the weekends. No, he’s got to head to Richmond and do nothing but legislatin’ for a couple of months every year. There’s a district office to run, fundraisers to hold, public meetings to attend, constituent service to provide, and the thousand small duties of the office. Then there’s the campaigning, which in a competitive race can easily eat up most of the day for a few months prior to the election. And how much do we pay legislators for performing this duty that is the centerpiece of their lives?

$17,640. That’s the annual salary for members of the House of Delegates. By my math, that’s something like twelve bucks an hour. I know people who make better money assembling sandwiches at Bodo’s.

Why do we pay them so badly? Because it allows us to maintain a happy fiction, the fiction that we have a part-time legislature with gentlemen legislators who represent the people because they are the people, who come together for a few weeks every year to do the state’s business, and then return to tilling their soil or making candles or selling slaves or whatever. This allows us to avoid a host of ethical problems, or at least pretend that we’re avoiding ethical problems. Put a banker on the banking committee that passes laws to regulate banks? No problem! Who knows banking better? A DUI attorney who introduces bills to toughen drunk driving laws, which benefits his business? That’s A-OK—because he’s obviously the man for the job.

We’re supposed to be shocked—shocked!—that Phil Hamilton, who works for the Newport News public schools, has introduced legislation that directly benefits him. If he were an attorney, that wouldn’t just be fine, it would be encouraged. But he’s not. So Hamilton is in deep shit.

Generally speaking, for a legislator to live within the minimal ethical boundaries established by the General Assembly, he must be a) an attorney b) independently wealthy or c) poor. Hamilton clearly had grown tired of option C, and figured that the state owed him for all of the time he’d put in for the public good. Had Hamilton done the correct thing and retired from his seat to earn some more money, he would have been in good company. I’ve never made a study of it, but it seems to me that a great many members of the legislature have stepped down because they simply couldn’t afford it anymore. The exception to that being attorneys.

Did you know that both Sen. Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell “work” for law firms right now? Obviously they’re not putting in a lot of office hours, but they’re drawing a salary. Any member of the legislature who is an attorney is free to do just that. You can get paid for doing nothing…as long as you’re a lawyer.

This should be a call to action for Virginia. We get the quality of government that we’re willing to pay for. At $17k, we’re going to get the idle rich, dilettantes, lawyers, and a handful of selfless, civic-minded individuals…and some of the latter group will not remain so selfless, winding up like Hamilton. We need to increase legislators’ salaries tenfold and bar outside employment. If you want to be in the legislature, you’ve got to go all-in. Then we can increase the length of the session to something humane, something that allows bills to get a proper airing—12 weeks, 16 weeks, maybe 20 weeks, spread out throughout the year, in the manner of Congress. Or we can keep doing what we’re doing. But from where I’m sitting, that’s not working out so well.

What Phil Hamilton did is wrong. He should lose his seat. He should lose his job. He should be shamed by his community. But let’s not pretend that he’s an anomaly. Hamilton just picked the wrong profession.

21 thoughts on “The Hamilton scandal tells us it’s time to overhaul the General Assembly.”

  1. I agree we need to pay legislators more so we do not have a general assembly of the rich and lawyers who by the way are generally not poor either. No wonder Virginia has the some of the worst safety net protections for the poor in the country with no chance for someone poor to make it into the legislature as in other states through grass roots organizing–because they won’t be able to afford to take the job.

    But I also have to add, Phil Hamilton is a member of the Supreme Court Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, the Commission behind making Virginia the most likely to wrongly lock up and drug people for no good reason because they wrote the laws that make it so easy to commit someone I could commit my beagle for not taking his pain medication by himself as unable to care for medical needs………

  2. I’ve been arguing for a full time legislature almost as long as I have been blogging. When the Hamilton story first broke – before the emails became public and both he and ODU were saying nothing was wrong – I argued that this situation would be much less likely to occur if we had a full-time legislature.

    As long as VA buries its head in the sand, we will continue to have situations like this arise. It’s sad, really.

  3. There’s a district office to run, fundraisers to hold, public meetings to attend, constituent service to provide, and the thousand small duties of the office. Then there’s the campaigning, which in a competitive race can easily eat up most of the day for a few months prior to the election.

    Maybe part of the answer lies there; remove some of the extraneous stuff? A ten fold increase is absurd though. That would put them on par with the US Congress (which is overpaid, in my opinion).

    Maybe a small increase could help them… say, enough to live on… maybe around $40,000? Then, they could be full time legislators, wouldn’t need to be an attorney, independently wealthy, NOR poor. But they also wouldn’t be able to “get rich” just by being elected (the way it is in DC).

  4. Meri: 40K? Are you living in your ma’s basement? That won’t support a family.

    Federal legislators don’t get rich on their salary, they get rich by starting a “campaign” PAC and taking money from special interest lobby orgs. Then, like Dick Cheney retire and go to work for same.

  5. Bubby: I don’t know what fantasy world you’re living in, but 40K is how a lot of people live. Are you saying that they are not supporting their family? What about people making 35K, 30K? And it doesn’t prohibit a 2 salary family (somewhat commonplace today), nor ban (legal) outside consulting, etc.

  6. Meri, I think the point of the salary is to attract talent. Entry level public accountant positions pay more than $40k year. And the qualification there is a Masters in Public Accountancy and maybe a 6-month, do-nothing internship. If the pay is low and you have grown accustomed to a certain standard of living, why would anyone leave their job?

  7. tx2vadem: I dunno, how about to serve your Commonwealth? In my opinion, there is a balancing act we have between attracting the best people and attracting those truly interested in serving. And a salary of 40K is still much higher than they make now. Are you saying that people don’t want to leave their job now? People can make way more money in the private sector, that’s obvious. But say we make the salary $50 million a year. Are we going to be attracting people truly interested in bettering the Commonwealth, or are we going to be enticing people that just want the money? Keeping the salary somewhat low, you can weed out the people seeking office to seek financial gain.

    Also, Bubby: If 40K isn’t enough, how much is? $50K? $59,562? Higher?

  8. A: They already make about $40k, they get an office allowance, equal to their salary, which they don’t have to itemize and which is thus treated by the IRS as income. It IS income. They don’t use it on their district office, most of which are in their houses or businesses. Some pay for their office out of campaign funds and pocket the office allowance. Before you go raising their salaries, find out what they actually make rather than what they say they make.
    B. The Hamilton situation has nothing to do with poverty. Between his part-time job at ODU, part time job with Newport News Schools, legislative salary and office allowance, Phil was pulling down about $114k per year of taxpayer money. That’s well above the state’s median income. His wife also has a well-paying state job at CNU.
    C. What we need is ethics and conflict of interest laws with teeth, not a full-time legislature. We’ve got enough professional politicians in Richmond now.

  9. What’s being proposed here is not simply increasing their salary. It’s increasing their salary and requiring that they forego all other income. No speakers’ fees. No consulting gigs. No part-time job. And thus avoid the most significant source of ethical conflicts in the legislature.

    You can’t just create “ethics and conflict of interest laws with teeth”—what you’d inevitably wind up with is prohibiting the people who know about banking from regulating banking, the people who are attorneys from regulating the practice of law, etc., leaving the least-knowledgeable people in charge. That’s madness.

    Any free-marketer should agree that to get the best talent, you have to pay accordingly. Does General Motors, ExxonMobil, or Microsoft pay their executives $40k, telling candidates that the prestige of the position and the importance of the companies to this country should be enough for them? Of course not. If you pay more, you get better talent.

  10. Meri; The compensation balance I would look for would be successful small business CEO range, $170 K or so with a move to a full time legislature, no gifts (per standard government rules), no PAC money, big limits on campaign contributions (VA has none). This compensation range would allow people with small businesses to give up their private sector salary to a new hire – keeping their business viable while in service.

    The current system incentivises influence buying by well funded industries, trade groups, associations, and individuals. I look at the lay of the land and it would make more sense for me to make lots of money and buy the ear of half a dozen influential delegates than it would to seek office under such austere conditions. And I believe that is just what is going on.

  11. If you pay more, you get better talent.

    Well, that’s clearly not always true. Is Lee Evans a better wide reciever than Randy Moss? Not likely. Is Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey a better actor than Sean Penn or Daniel Day Lewis because he makes more money? Not likely.

    Do people sometimes turn down higher-paying jobs to do things that they have a passion for? Yes. Does it happen that they might have been the best person for the job? Yes. Does that job then get filled by someone less qualified/experienced/etc.? Yes.

    However, do people apply for jobs out of their qualifications because the salary is really good? Yes, and it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

    I’m just not sure paying huge salaries and creating another set of career politicians is the right way to go.

  12. Bubbi: “The compensation balance I would look for would be successful small business CEO range, $170 K ”
    Congratulations, that sure to produce another crop of Steve Newmans and Steve Martins who make a career out of the General Assembly. Just what we need.
    These guys aren’t underpaid, they’re under regulated.

  13. Well, that’s clearly not always true. Is Lee Evans a better wide reciever than Randy Moss? Not likely. Is Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey a better actor than Sean Penn or Daniel Day Lewis because he makes more money? Not likely.

    Ah, but you misjudge the purpose of acting in movies. Whether or not Eddie Murphy is a better actor than Sean Penn can be debated by academics, but their purpose is to make money. Among the top 25 grossing actors, Jim Carrey ranks #16 ($2.2B in revenue) and Eddie Murphy ranks #10 ($3.4B). By hiring better actors—”better” determined by income generated—movie studios make more money. About Moss and Evans, I know nothing—I’m a baseball man. :)

    But you are right that’s it’s not always true. Nobody’s claiming that we’d wind up with a perfect legislature under this scenario, just a better one.

    I’m just not sure paying huge salaries and creating another set of career politicians is the right way to go.

    But we already have career politicians. The General Assembly is packed with them.

  14. Ooops—-think you have a typo in your story:

    “That’s such a clear ethics violation that his fellow Republican, Speaker Bill Howell, has already asked the House Ethics committee to investigate, and the party’s leaders are lining up to declare that Howell has to resign.”

    Didn’t you mean to say that the party’s leaders are lining up to declare that HAMILTON has to resign, not HOWELL?

  15. I’ve always believed that Steve Newman ran for office because he couldn’t find another job and once he was elected couldn’t believe the great good fortune to be realized by leveraging his influence. $250K in 2007 alone (for an uncontested race). Cut that nonsense, make the job pay reasonable, and a number of Lynchburgers will see the value of unseating Steve.

  16. Bubby: I agree. But if you raise the salary you’re going to convince a bunch of 25-year-old wingnuts that politics is easier than working for a living and some of them will get elected.

  17. Didn’t you mean to say that the party’s leaders are lining up to declare that HAMILTON has to resign, not HOWELL?

    Thanks so much for that correction—you’re absolutely right, that is what I meant, and I fixed it. Two “H” names make for trouble. :)

    if you raise the salary you’re going to convince a bunch of 25-year-old wingnuts that politics is easier than working for a living and some of them will get elected.

    The trouble is that they already think that. 25-year-olds interested in running for political office are probably largely convinced that it is a path to wealth. (And, looking some of of the members of the General Assembly, why wouldn’t they think that?) Plus, you’ve got to have some faith in the electoral process. Generally people don’t just fall into office. If there’s a widely-held belief that “politics is easier than working for a living,” then it stands to reason that we’d find a lot of people running and, consequently, wind up with the candidate who a plurality of the populace is qualified.

    People like to think that the amount of money that they can make is limited only by their imagination and ambition. Being told “you can make no more than $150k” (or whatever) is certain to be discouraging to those folks who think that the legislature is their path to fabulous wealth. That’s a very nice living, no doubt, but anybody who is willing to do the work necessary to get elected is going to find that if they put that same amount of work towards starting a business, their potential income is a great deal higher.

  18. They already make about $40k, they get an office allowance, equal to their salary, which they don’t have to itemize and which is thus treated by the IRS as income. It IS income. They don’t use it on their district office, most of which are in their houses or businesses. Some pay for their office out of campaign funds and pocket the office allowance. Before you go raising their salaries, find out what they actually make rather than what they say they make.

    Maybe this is the case for the delegates where you live. That is certainly not the case for most of our representatives in Hampton Roads. So to say “they don’t use it on their district office” as a declarative statement is misleading and flat out inaccurate for a lot of the representatives.

  19. Here’s a different approach with two changes proposed for *new* office holders. Let’s accept the hypothesis that public service is a significant component of delegate/ senator work at the state level and we don’t want lack of wealth alone to prevent talent from filling those positions.

    Assume the continuation of a part time legislature. The first benefit to new office holders should be along the lines of reemployment rights similar in nature to the benefits awarded via USERRA or to National Guard members (see http://198.246.135.1/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+44-93.3 or http://www.dol.gov/elaws/userra.htm).

    Let this benefit accrue also to a maximum of one administrative assistant to the office holder. The benefit expires after 4 calendar years for the office holder and after 6 calendar years per delegate for an admin. There can be different admins, but only one at a time may receive the benefit annually.

    Another idea here is that 4 years ought to be sufficient for the office holder to decide whether or not to hold the office for repeated cycles in which case it becomes his or her responsibility to make appropriate financial and domestic arrangements.

    If that’s too much of a difficulty, hopefully there is enough incentive for another talented individual to step up to the plate.

    The second part is a modest financial incentive w/o details here but the gist is that it is distributed to the office holder, one admin, the employer(s) of each. The total amount would be small – say 25K total – and the office holder or the admin along with their respective employees would be ineligible if they make over some fixed amount outside, say 110K.

Comments are closed.