This is another excellent example of what I see as a downside of the digitization of information and its availability on the internet. I have written before (6 U. Penn. J. Const. Law 1, for those with Westlaw or Lexis) that disclosure of modest campaign contributions exacts a privacy cost on individual donors with very little discernible benefit in terms of public information. Your nosy neighbors (and blind dates and job interviewers and people in your church) can use sites like this and this to easily snoop your politicial contributions. But knowing that I gave money to John Kerry’s campaign tells you a lot about me and essentially nothing about Kerry.
I see this salary snoop database as much the same. Mind you, we are not talking here about money paid to elected officials or highly placed political figures. It might be different if this were the members of Congress themselves (whose salaries are set by statute) or perhaps their most senior aides. Can it really matter to “the public interest” precisely how much a senator or representative pays the twentysomethings who toil in a legislative office answering the mail or tracking the activities of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation? When I worked on Capitol Hill as one of those twentysomethings, the fact that my salary was public rankled, but at least it was not available to the casual web surfer. (Most common use: other aides seeking comparative info for leverage in salary negotiations. How’d you like to run a private company with that feature?)
Back then, to find out my salary someone had to go to the trouble of looking the figure up in a big printed book housed in a congressional office. The internet obliterates that speedbump and makes this private information permanently and easily accessible to the public. It thus raises the stakes when, as a policy matter, we disclose personal information in the name of laudable goals such as governmental openness. If the benefits are worth it, then that’s fine, but too often we assume sunshine is healthy and ignore privacy. How many of us would like to have our salary available on the internet? (As an employee of a state university, my salary is also a matter of public record, but to my knowledge no one has digitized it and put it online — yet). And the benefit served here, beyond an abstract notion that transparency is always good, remains hazy.
Sunshine sure is popular, though. So much so that heavy traffic quickly brought the new site’s servers down. How many think that all those hits came, not from Beltway gossips, but from average citizens engaged in sober analysis of the manner in which taxpayer dollars are allotted to congressional staff?