More Money for MKs

A good salary with benefits for MKs is part of the price of democracy - those who try to get a legislative branch at bargain basement prices should not be surprised if they end up with third-rate MKs.

A few weeks ago, Haaretz reporter Zvi Zrahiya reported that there are eight senior Knesset officials who earn monthly salaries higher than those of an MK. The Knesset's legal advisor, Nurit Alstein, earns NIS 53,500 a month, and the ombudsman for future generations, Shlomo Shoham, earns nearly NIS 50,000. An MK's salary is NIS 32,000 gross, about NIS 15,000 after taxes.

Shoham and Allstein are not alone. Ten senior officials in the State Comptroller's Office earn more than Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, and he earns more than the MKs - NIS 36,000.

A report from last year by the wages director in the treasury shows that in 2003 there were 2,919 senior officials in public service who made more than NIS 30,000 a month. Of these, 575 earned more than NIS 40,000. Yet MKs serve in the legislature, the most important body in a democratic state; their responsibilities are enormous; and an MK can lose his or her job at a moment's notice, if the Knesset is dispersed.

The problem is not that the public servants earn too much. On the contrary, public service requires good managers and top-notch professionals, who cost money. It's good that the salaries of the legal advisor to the Knesset and the ombudsman for future generations earn such high salaries. It is one of the ways to give their positions power and prestige. The question is why MKs earn so little. How is it that people whose salaries are linked to district court judges, like the Knesset's assistant legal advisor, Eti Bendler (NIS 45,000) and Knesset secretary Arye Hann (NIS 45,000) earn much more than MKs?

The answer, apparently, is that the link between time on the job and the wages of public officials and judges does not exist for MKs. It's important to remember: MKs are exposed to the temptation of gifts, trips, benefits, perks and bribery, just like a judge. The fairer their wage, the less likely they will be tempted.

For most of the professional and economic elite, the transition to an MK's salary means a drop in earnings, sometimes significantly so. The result is that top-flight professionals in their field and high-level managers from the economy rarely make their way to the Knesset. Those who do enter the Knesset usually do so only after they've made their fortunes and devoted most of their lives and energies elsewhere.

True, there will always be some MKs who lack skills and have no higher education. That is the price of representative government. But they are also our envoys and their wages are paid to them because of their job - making the laws that organize our lives and supervising the executive branch. The more we pay them, the more worthy the candidates we will find for these missions.

Quite a bit of criticism has been leveled at how MKs use their budgets for contact with the voter. But practically speaking, it is entirely reasonable for MKs and their assistants to use the money to buy the best available computers and the fastest Internet connection. MKs spend a lot of time traveling the country as part of their work (yes, including to the bar mitzvot and weddings of central committee members and their relatives). For that purpose it is more than reasonable that they have a global positioning system. It is also why they should have a well-made personal digital assistant. Where should they write down their appointments? In a notebook?

Parliamentary assistants earn salaries up to NIS 6,000 a month. That's enough to hire students or recent college grads. Those who want professional, well-briefed MKs should guarantee them worthy assistants, expert and experienced in their fields. To that end, MKs need at least one assistant who earns NIS 20,000.

A good salary with benefits for MKs is part of the price of democracy. The price should be paid to strengthen the legislative branch of government. Adding 10,000 shekels a month to an MK (and minister's) salary would cost the treasury less than NIS 20 million (as long as nobody's salaries are linked to their salaries). That's not an excessive amount to pay for a better Knesset. Those who try to get a legislative branch at bargain basement prices should not be surprised if they end up with third-rate MKs.