Congress May Soon Freeze Their Own Salaries

President Barack Obama’s decision to freeze top White House staff salaries may force members of Congress to do something they never want to do — block their own automatic pay increase. 

But what Obama could do by executive order, Congress would have to accomplish by a vote. 

With the country in economic turmoil, 80 House members have already signed on as co-sponsors for a variety of bills that would prevent automatic congressional pay hikes or at least require a roll-call vote before they take effect. In the Senate, Louisiana Republican David Vitter has introduced his own legislation. He doesn’t have any co-sponsors yet, but Obama’s pay freeze — coupled with what’s likely to be a $1 trillion federal deficit — could put pressure on other members to get in line quickly. 

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his leadership recognizes the political peril in accepting a pay hike during an economic downturn — but hasn’t decided whether to support a pay freeze. 

 “It is something that has been discussed,” the Maryland Democrat acknowledged. 

Another top Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted that party leaders would likely prevent any pay increase in 2010, an election year, but cautioned: “No one has said, one way or another, what we’re going to do.” 

Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said members were free to offer amendments to block the congressional cost-of-living adjustment but declined to say if she has taken a position on the matter.
“If the members want, there will be an opportunity to address this issue in the next legislative branch appropriations bill,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. 

Members of Congress will earn an annual salary of $174,000 in 2009. Party leaders make more; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will get $223,500 this year, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will earn $193,400 each. 

Since 1989, salary increases for lawmakers have been based on a component of the Employment Cost Index, which is computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Congress must vote to deny the pay increase, which is automatic otherwise. The increase, technically a cost-of-living adjustment, can by tradition be blocked by an amendment to one of the annual appropriations bills. But in recent years, such attempts have been routinely defeated in the House. 

However, lawmakers did not receive an increase in their 2007 salary, because the protracted battle over appropriations bills the previous year was not resolved until well after Democrats won control of Congress in the November midterm elections, too late for the congressional COLA to take effect. 

House GOP leaders have not decided how to deal with the pay issue this year, although some top Republicans clearly like the idea of a freeze. The question for these senior Republicans is not whether to push for a freeze but how to maximize the political impact of doing so. 

A number of rank-and-file lawmakers, including freshmen from both parties, are strongly backing the idea of forgoing a COLA for members and senators, arguing that the troubled American economy demands some sacrifice by members of Congress.

“It would be a good message to send to the American populace and our constituents,” said Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), who has put his name on three different bills to block pay increases. “This is not the time for us to get a pay raise.” 

“It would be inappropriate to raise our pay when the economy is in such dire straits,” added Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a close ally of Boehner. 

Congressional pay is an extremely touchy topic for members and senators. They know that the American public believes members are overpaid already, and they are aware that low congressional poll ratings and rising unemployment rates make for a toxic political mix. Plus, Obama’s call for sacrifice in his inaugural address, together with his staff pay freeze, is going to make the size of congressional paychecks fair game. 

Yet, despite the image of members of Congress as fat cats, many are not personally wealthy, especially those who have served for 20 or 30 years. So the battle over pay raises becomes an intergenerational fight, with older lawmakers vehemently opposing a COLA freeze, while younger members, often elected on a reform platform, supporting it. In the past, the older members have usually won this fight. 

Lawmakers also have to pay for two residences, and they face tough restrictions on what outside income they can accept. They argue that failing to pay a fair salary to lawmakers will mean that the “best and brightest” won’t run for office because they can make more in the private sector. 

And some members will claim, although rarely out loud, that if lawmakers were paid better, then there might be fewer corruption cases such as those that brought down former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and William Jefferson (D-La.) and former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Cunningham pled guilty to having accepted more than $2 million in bribes, while Stevens was convicted of failing to report more than $250,000 in improper gifts. Jefferson faces a trial this year on allegations that he took more than $400,000 in bribes. 

“No one wants to talk about it, but if those guys had been a little better off financially, maybe they wouldn’t have gone bad,” said one House Democrat. 

During the early 1990s, GOP lawmakers used the issue successfully against the Democrats to help fuel the 1994 Republican Revolution. Then former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) turned the issue on Republicans. Fearing the political fallout, members went without a pay raise for four years, from 1994 through 1997. There was no pay increase in 1999, either. 

However, Hoyer and former Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) helped work out a compromise that allowed the annual COLAs to start again. And with a few notable exceptions, the two sides have refrained from bashing one another on the topic, at least until now. Since the 2000 COLA was implemented, lawmakers’ pay has risen from $141,300 to the current level of $174,000. 

Lawmakers have also enjoyed a big increase in members’ representational allowances, the pots of money they use to run their offices — and pay their staffers. MRAs are expected to rise by an average of $90,000 this year. That could let members give raises to staffers even if their own pay is frozen — but member salaries also place a cap on what staffers can earn.

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