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Prince Charlie and the people

Politics

One of the chief Tea Party concerns over the past 20 months has been the sense that government has become a separate class with interests separate from those of the people. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., personifies this problem.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently censured Rangel-the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee responsible for writing tax legislation-for unethical behavior involving, among other things, failing to report taxable income. This scandal brought to public attention the sharp contrast between the man and the people he represents. In many ways, life has been very kind to Charlie Rangel . . . generously kind. But it turns out that Rangel has used his position to be generously kind to himself.

Rangel represents New York's 15th Congressional District, which includes Harlem, but also Columbia University and the upscale Morningside Heights. But taken as a whole, the district has not been doing nearly as well as the congressman representing it. This is strange given that Rangel is one of the most powerful men in Washington. The median annual income for his district is just under $28,000, which does not go far in New York City. Rangel, by contrast, has a net worth of between $1 million and $2.5 million, depending on how you count, I suppose. For example, unlike most of his neighbors, he owns a villa in the Dominican Republic from which he made $75,000 in unreported rental income.

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A comparable situation can arise in the pastoral ministry, and the comparison is instructive. If a pastor serving a poor church in a poor neighborhood were to draw a salary significantly beyond what anyone else in the church were making and lived in a swank neighborhood on the other side of town, though the church for whatever reason might be fine with that and perhaps even proud of it, the incongruity would rightly trouble the impartial observer. A pastor should stand with his people, suffering what they suffer, prospering as they prosper. If nothing else, he cannot serve them faithfully if he cannot sympathize with them.

The same is true of the people's political servants. If most people in a district live in public housing, their representative should also live in public housing. If most people in a district are served by appallingly bad public schools, their representative should have his or her children (if there are any) in those same schools. Finding this unacceptable, congressmen would soon start supporting effective ways for opening up economic opportunities for their neighbors to better themselves. Otherwise, politicians have that much less incentive to do what they legitimately can to improve their people's overall quality of life. They become, one might say, political farmers instead of political representatives, bilking the people instead of benefiting them, standing on their backs rather than "having their backs," as we say.

Of course, this equality of condition is something we should simply expect from those who govern us, except in statewide and national offices. It cannot be imposed by law. We can't legally require anyone to live in a particular place or use a particular form of schooling. Tying congressional salaries to local median incomes would not prevent elected representatives from securing outside sources of income or even bringing previously earned or inherited wealth to the office. Although, given what many congressmen will do to line their pockets at the public expense even in surprisingly trivial ways, district-determined salary caps might be effective incentive for a more sincere public service.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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