Rep. Sean Duffy Pleads Poverty On $174,000/Year

Before Sean Duffy became a U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin in January, he was best known for being a cast member on MTV’s low-rent reality TV show, The Real World: Boston.

You would think that all of that time in front of the cameras would have prepared him for his new role as a cast member in the U.S. House of Representatives. But when a constituent asked him recently why his salary as a Congressman was so “out of line” with what average families earned, Duffy offered a tone-deaf response.

“I can guarantee you, or most of you, I guarantee that I have more debt than all of you. With 6 kids, I still pay off my student loans. I still pay my mortgage. I drive a used minivan. If you think I’m living high on the hog, I’ve got one paycheck. So I struggle to meet my bills right now.”

The problem here is not necessarily one of facts. Perhaps Mr. Duffy’s finances really are as tight as he describes. Moreover, he now has to add rent for a place in Washington, D.C. to his personal expenses.

Rather, the problem here is that he’s wickedly out-of-step with his constituents. As of 2008, the average per capita income for citizens of Wisconsin was $35,239. That means that Duffy earns almost five times as much as his constituents. I don’t begrudge him a nice income, but pleading poverty won’t work.

Reporters ask this type of question a lot – to business executives who lay off employees while accepting higher paychecks, to heads of utility companies who raise rates on poor customers while earning six figures, and to charity execs who cut services while accepting bigger pay packages.

In all of these cases, the response must be aligned with the needs and concerns of stakeholders. As examples, Mr. Duffy might have said:

“Congressional pay was set long before I arrived in Washington. But given how many Americans are suffering, I would absolutely support legislation that either cut Congressional pay or prevented it from increasing.”


“Yes, it’s too much money. And I’d gladly accept a paycut. But even more importantly, it begs a critical question: Can someone making $174,000 per year understand the challenges so many people are enduring? For too many people in Washington, I’m afraid the answer is no. But in my case, the answer is yes. For most of my life, I’ve had a lot of debt. Only since entering the House a few months ago did my check go up. I personally understand your struggles well, and I will fight every day for you.”


Instead, Mr. Duffy chose to pretend that his $174,000 salary isn’t a lot. And that’s something that just won’t sit right with people back home.

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