A Defense of Per DiemThe Tennessean ran a story on Sunday about the per diem expenses of legislators and the fact that some have run up inappropriately high expense bills:
In just the first three months of the year, state representatives collected an average of $6,300 in daily payments for their work. Over that same period, senators received roughly the same amount, plus $8,200 in the second quarter, records show. House records for the second quarter are to be released soon.
Lawmakers, however, say per diems are an important part of their compensation package, helping them cover the cost of a job that frequently consumes 60 hours or more each week.
There is little question that many legislators have abused the privilege of per diem, especially those who live in Davidson County and can go home every night. It is quite legitimate to question whether Davidson County legislators ought to receive per diem. Those members who do not need per diem in order to do business in Nashville should not be able to claim it. I will, however, defend the notion that legislators who travel to Nashville from other parts of the State for some six months out of the year-putting away their professional and personal lives to do it-ought to be paid per diem, and it should be roughly the same amount they are currently paid.
That isn't a popular position, but it is reflective of reality. Since I have spent a week at a time at the Capitol on a couple of occasions now, I can report firsthand about the personal expense of doing business on the Hill. Even with the steep legislative discount that some hotels close to the Capitol give members of the House and Senate and some staff, the cost of a room plus three meals and any personal incidentals that traveling always will incur eats into a legislator's per diem pretty heavily, and depending on the cost of their hotel or the rent on their apartment (those of you who live in Nashville should know something about rent anywhere remotely close to Charlotte Avenue) it might very well take the entire day's allowance. Per diem is based on how much the federal government says that it costs a person to live in Nashville per day.
Many rightly point out that legislators pocket their office allowance. This is a perk which should only be reserved for those members who intend to open district offices, as it is simply a means of additional income the way the system now works. If members are pocketing that allowance as income and being taxed on it, either work it into the base salary of legislators or eliminate it altogether as money to be given.
I do not propose that the Tennessee General Assembly should be made full time. Some States do have legislatures that are full time and it is a recipe for legal, social, and political mischief and thoroughly rotten government (see Congress, United States). The longer any legislative body is in session the greater the chance exists to impose tyranny upon the public in the name of popular sentiment. However, asking legislators to serve part time is a sacrifice on their part, and should be seen as such both by legislators and constituents. The majority of our elected legislators are personally decent people, but if you think there are some bad apples now, take away per diem allowances and see what happens. Doing away with per diem would keep the decent folks out of the Legislature (they couldn't afford it), and give us a General Assembly made up of a collection of the independently wealthy and the scoundrels trying to find a way to graft their expenses. If you thought Tennessee Waltz was bad, we would have the Waltz times ten without per diem.
As it stands now, our General Assembly gives us a few people from nearly every walk of life in Tennessee-lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women, firefighters, salesmen, teachers, farmers, accountants, property developers, and many others. We should endeavor to want to keep it that way for the sake of the public good. The Speaker of the House is right to want to limit any per diem collected when the Legislature is not in session to essential business. It should not be completely eliminated.