Skip to main content

Who Should Govern Congress? The Salary Grab of 1873 and the Coalition of Reform (WP-05-07)

Jeffery A. Jenkins, Lee J. Alston, Kara Gorski, and Tomas Nonnenmacher

We examine the politics surrounding the "Salary Grab," a legislative initiative passed on the last day of the 42nd Congress (March 3, 1873) that increased congressional salaries by 50 percent and made the pay hike retroactive to the first day of the Congress, nearly two years earlier. We argue that opposition within Congress to the Salary Grab was part of a larger reform movement in the early 1870s, which also targeted other areas of government excess and corruption, like congressional franking, spoils-based civil service appointments, and the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Specifically, we posit that a “coalition of reform” emerged in the 42nd Congress, composed of New England elites and anti-monopolist Midwesterners, who espoused a philosophy of “good government,” wherein public servants would be comprised of the “best men” possible, such as those from privileged backgrounds, who would act selflessly and promote the greater good. Examining congressional roll-call votes on the Salary Grab, franking, and civil service reform, we find significant overlap in individual-level vote choice, which is explained by variables that tap this coalition of reform. The liberal reformers were largely unsuccessful in creating a true reform party and expediting a broad reform agenda at the congressional level, but their efforts allowed reform to become a viable issue in party politics and in the press throughout the late 19th century. These early reform efforts helped set the stage for the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century.

Jeffery A. Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Political Science; Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Lee J. Alston, Professor of Economics, Political Science, Government, and Public Affairs, University of Colorado; Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research

Kara Gorski, Analysis Group

Tomas Nonnenmacher, Associate Professor of Economics, Allegheny College

Download PDF