If you dream of becoming a senator, get ready for a life of challenges and rewards. State senators and members of the United States Senate hold elective office in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, respectively. Although senators do not have to comply with educational requirements, they must navigate political hurdles and win elections to secure their jobs. Most U.S. senators earn the same salary, but the income of state senators depends upon the state in which they serve.
Qualifications and Career Path of a Senator
The U.S. Constitution defines three qualifications to serve in the U.S. Senate: At the time of your election, you must be a legal resident of the state you represent; you must hold U.S. citizenship for a minimum of nine years, and you must be at least 30 years old.
Qualifications for state senators vary. For example, in California you must be a U.S. citizen, hold state residency for at least three years and be at least 18 years of age. Kentucky and Tennessee also have residency and citizenship requirements, and both states require you to be at least 30 years old to serve in their senates.
Although federal and state governments do not impose education requirements on senators, candidates face other hurdles. To add their names to a ballot, candidates for U.S. and state senates must circulate petitions promoting their candidacy and collect a certain number of signatures from the electorate. In some state elections, the number of required signatures can depend upon whether the aspiring candidate represents a majority, minority or independent party. For instance, if Jack wants to run for office as a member of the legislature’s majority party, he must obtain more signatures than Jill, who represents the minority party.
Senators arrive at their positions through a variety of career paths. Some obtain a law degree and gain political experience by serving on the staffs of seasoned politicians. Oftentimes, senators begin their political careers at the local or state level before seeking higher office.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee earned a law degree before serving as governor of Tennessee. After leaving the governor’s office, Alexander served as the U.S. Secretary of Education, before his election to the U.S. Senate. The late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota held a career in academia, teaching at Carleton College for more than 20 years, before running for the U.S. Senate. Before U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he began his political career as a Shelby County, Tennessee, commissioner and then served as a Tennessee state senator for 24 years.
United States Senator Salary
In 1789, U.S. senators made $6 per day when Congress was in session. Since 2009, members of the U.S. Senate have brought home $174,000 per year. The Senate President pro tempore, as well as majority and minority leaders such as Chuck Schumer, earn a salary of $193,400 annually. Senate members do not receive a per diem during congressional sessions, or money for housing. Senate committee members do not receive additional compensation.
While in office, senators must contribute to the Social Security system and pay taxes. As of 2016, Congress allows members to earn around $27,500 per year in outside income. The congressional salary and outside income allowance provides sufficient earnings for senators with substantial assets, but members with modest holdings may suffer financial hardship while in office. For example, Arizona Senator John McCain has assets worth around $13 to $24 million, with liabilities of $110,000 to $265,000, according to a 2016 AZ Central report. However, Arizona senator Jeff Flake has a much lower net worth of $300,000 to $617,000 and liabilities of $350,000 to $75,000.
Senators who do not have health insurance can select a plan through DC Link, a health-care exchange established by the Affordable Care Act. Under the DC Link plans, senators pay about 28 percent of the premium, and tax revenue covers the balance. Senators do not receive a salary after leaving Congress, but they can participate in federal government retirement plans, to which they must contribute part of their salary.
State Senator Salary
State legislatures establish salaries for their representatives and senators. Some states pay an annual salary, while others compensate senators based on a legislative session rate. According to a 2017 National Conference of State Legislatures survey, California pays its state senators more than $104,000 per year, while Mississippi senators bring home $10,000. At the bottom of the scale, New Mexico does not pay its senators a salary.
South Dakota pays senators $6,000 per legislative session, plus $142 per day to members serving on interim committees. Vermont pays its senators around $700 per week during legislative sessions, while Wyoming pays its members $150 per day during sessions.
Certain states pay their senators an annual salary, plus a per diem rate during legislative sessions. For example, Alaska senators make $50,400 per year, plus $213 to $247 per day during sessions. In addition to their annual salary, California senators also make $183 per day during sessions. While New Mexico senators do not earn a salary, the state does pay them a $164 per diem during sessions.
Benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans vary from state to state. Typically, state senators have similar benefit options as civil service employees.