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It pays to leave Congress: Democrat who resigned mid-term is getting a $131,000 pay bump to run a performing arts center

Bryan Metzger   

It pays to leave Congress: Democrat who resigned mid-term is getting a $131,000 pay bump to run a performing arts center
  • Rep. Brian Higgins resigned after 19 years in Congress for a job at a local performing arts center.
  • He left in the middle of his term, saying the House had become "slow and frustrating."

At the beginning of February, Rep. Brian Higgins officially resigned from Congress to take a job as the president of a local performing arts center.

It was a curious move for the New York Democrat, who had served in the House for 19 years. He left almost a year before his current term was over, cutting down House Democrats' vote margin at a time when Republicans were also beginning to head for the exits in droves.

"The pace in Washington, DC can be slow and frustrating, especially this year," Higgins said in a November statement on his impending resignation. It had been just a couple of weeks since the House was engulfed in a chaotic fight to find a new speaker after Kevin McCarthy's ouster, and Higgins later made clear that he had soured on the polarization and gridlock that had befallen Washington.

Just weeks later, Higgins was named president and CEO of Shea's Performing Arts Center, which includes a historic theatre first built in 1926.

And according to financial disclosure documents that Higgins filed with the House Clerk on Friday, that new gig comes with a handsome $305,000 salary.

That's a $131,000 increase from the $174,000 annual salary that Higgins — and all other rank-and-file members of the House and Senate — make each year.

That's not to say that Higgins is simply cashing out by taking the new job.

In interviews and press appearances, the former congressman has made clear that he sees his new job as a way to boost the economic prosperity of the town he's long called home. He is set to oversee an expansion of the theatre complex, an important cultural institution in Buffalo, and he has said that he hopes to bring in tourism from nearby Canadians.

And if he was just trying to make more money for himself, there are plenty of more lucrative avenues for that, including lobbying, consulting, or joining a corporate board.

But it's yet another illustration of the incentives faced by long-serving lawmakers and prospective candidates alike, particularly in a time when Congress is not especially productive.

Members of Congress have not seen any increase in their pay since 2009. Though $174,000 is far more than the average American makes annually, lawmakers and ethics experts alike have argued that it's insufficient for the demands of the job, which often includes frequent travel, two residences, and long hours. If lawmakers' salaries had kept pace with inflation in the last 15 years, they would be making more than $250,000 today.

With pay stuck at 2009 levels, lawmakers are less incentivized to stick around, contributing to decisions like the one made by Higgins.

"When you pay [lawmakers] enough, their incentives to go and be looking to get paid elsewhere diminish, and they become better public servants," Daniel Schuman, the director of governance at the POPVOX Foundation, told Business Insider in January. "That's just human nature."

And it makes it more difficult for potential candidates who aren't independently wealthy to run for Congress in the first place.

"If we want working-class people who don't rely on independent wealth to represent people in Congress, we have to make it work," Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told Business Insider in January.

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