Delegate 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.