Americans Polled: 78 Percent Want Congress to Return 5 Percent of Their Pay

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Most Americans favor members of Congress voluntarily returning some portion of their salary as a result of the impact of the sequestration budget cuts, which went into effect March 1. In response to two suggested giveback amounts, 78 percent of Americans favor Congress members returning 5 percent of their pay, and 79 percent favor Congress returning 25 percent.

President Barack Obama recently volunteered to return 5 percent of his presidential salary to the U.S. Treasury as a result of the sequestration, and other elected officials and members of the Cabinet have followed suit by pledging to return a portion of their salary to the Treasury or give a percentage to charity.

Changes in pay for members of the House and Senate cannot take effect until after the next election cycle has taken place, according to the 27th Amendment, which means that House and Senate members cannot begin to officially receive less pay until after next year's elections. But any elected official can voluntarily return a portion of his or her pay to the U.S. Treasury or donate it to charity.

Americans appear to think it would be just fine with them personally if members of Congress did voluntarily rebate part of their salary. The amount of the giveback makes little difference to Americans – 78 percent say members of Congress should return 5 percent of their pay. When a separate random sample was asked about a 25 percent cut in pay, 79 percent of Americans favored it.

It's not hard to find reasons why the public might favor a voluntary giveback in pay by members of the House and Senate. Congress' job approval in recent months has been in the low teens (13 percent in March; April's rating will be released this week on Gallup.com), which means the vast majority of Americans disapprove of the job their representatives have been doing in Washington.

Similarly, 34 percent of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the "legislative branch consisting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives," suggesting that agreement with the return in pay is essentially a ratification of a vote of no confidence. Thirteen percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress as an institution, near the all-time low on that measure.

There is virtually no difference in the views on this issue between Democrats and Republicans, making this one of those issues on which there is a high level of agreement across partisan lines.

Implications

Most Americans approve of the idea that members of the U.S. House and Senate should voluntarily return either 5 percent or 25 percent of their salary to the Treasury. Americans' overwhelming favor for this proposal likely stems at least in part from their low approval of the job Congress is doing. Americans may thus be following the same principle as a corporate board of directors that lowers the compensation of a CEO when the company is not meeting corporate targets.

Some of the reason for the widespread agreement may also stem directly from the sequestration that took effect more than a month ago, now resulting in cutbacks and government employee furloughs, which are essentially pay cuts for government employees.

It is impossible for Congress to officially cut its own pay across the board in any short-term way, but this read of the attitudes of the American public suggests that individual members may face pressure to return their pay or provide explanations for why they are not doing so.

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