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Stearns Targets COLAs

For the second year in a row, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) has introduced legislation that would block lawmakers’ annual automatic pay raise following a year when the federal government runs a deficit.

“Each year, Members of Congress receive an automatic pay increase even though budget deficits are increasing,” Stearns said in a statement. “This legislation will hold Members more accountable for these deficits.”

If the past decade is a guide, however, Stearns’ effort will likely be met with quiet resistance, if not hostility.

“Does the phrase ‘a cold-day in hell’ ring a bell?” a House GOP aide asked. “Members are always free to contribute their COLAs to the Treasury. Maybe the Congressman can lead by example.”

Since a delicate compromise was brokered between the Democratic and Republican leadership in 1989 to make cost-of-living adjustments automatic every year, critics trying to stop what they deemed a “stealth” pay raise traditionally have attempted to amend the Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill. But the pay boost — which is usually $3,500 to $5,000 — has gone into effect for the past six years.

Four years in a row in the mid-1990s, during another period of ballooning deficits, a group of junior House Members were successful in their efforts to amend the spending measure and prevent the pay hike from going into effect. Even though many at the time privately expressed disquietude, the vast majority of lawmakers voted for the politically popular measure, even as more senior lawmakers and committee chairmen lambasted the leadership for allowing the bill to come to a vote.

In an extraordinary floor debate in 1996, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who now wields the Appropriations gavel, said that sometimes the leadership must protect rank-and-file Members from themselves. He and others who opposed the measure said that the pay hikes were necessary to allow individuals who are not independently wealthy to serve in Congress.

Rank-and-file lawmakers currently make $162,100, with elected leaders making slightly more. Because federal statutes make the annual raises automatic, thwarting them also takes an act of Congress signed by the president. The House and Senate’s use of continuing resolutions to fund the federal government in recent years has made that even more difficult, however, as such an amendment to a CR would not be considered germane. That has sometimes left Members such as Stearns with the quixotic prospect of stand-alone legislation as their only avenue.

Much like the so-called ethics truce, the bipartisan House leadership has a decade-old “non-aggression” pact on the subject, promising not to support challengers who seek to make the COLA an issue. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have carried on the tradition.

Stearns acknowledges that even if his measure is successful, it would likely save only about $2 million. “Though a small sum, it would represent a good faith effort to let our constituents know that we are serious about controlling government spending,” said Stearns, who submitted the bill in early January.

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