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Take Your Pay

Advocates of denying Members their annual cost-of-living increase always have a rationale. This year’s is better than most, namely the “sacrifices” Congress will demand to pay for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. But this one doesn’t fly any better than past ones, such as the need to pay for the Iraq war, the need to narrow the federal deficit or the need to maintain a fiscal surplus.

The fact is, Members are elected to solve problems. They are not now and never have been overpaid, considering that theirs is a full-time job and that most could be making a lot more than $162,100 in the private sector. This year’s COLA, meant simply to keep pay current with inflation, would be just 1.9 percent, or $3,100.

The Senate, by an astounding margin of 92-6, voted Tuesday to cancel this year’s COLA and save a grand total of $2 million. By comparison, Katrina expenses are due to top $100 billion. “This is only symbolic — I recognize that,” said one of the measure’s sponsors, Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.). (The measure affects only Members, not aides or other Congressional employees.)

It may be worse than just symbolic. It may be posturing, in that a companion measure was (wisely) defeated in the House in June when leaders blocked amendments to the appropriations bill regarding legislative pay. The only way the Senate’s action can go into effect is if the House caves in a conference committee, writes in a COLA freeze and passes it on the House floor. We can assume there will be pressure to do this from talk radio hosts and budget hawks.

But, as we indicated, some such people can always find a justification to oppose the COLA. The only way Members managed to give themselves and their staff reasonable income was by cutting a deal in 1989 to allow for automatic COLAs that would take effect unless they were voted down.

Every year, an effort is undertaken to kill the COLA, and every year Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) tries to undo the whole system by returning to the days when COLAs had to be affirmatively voted on, rather than increased by what he calls “stealth.”

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that he normally opposes COLA-cutting efforts because, if successful, they’d make service in the Senate affordable only by multimillionaires. But this year, even Inhofe went with the crowd, citing Katrina. We submit that he was right in the past and wrong now.

We agree, too, with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said in September, “If you look at the responsibilities of the Members of Congress, it clearly calls for a salary higher than this.” He said Members were free to make personal donations to Katrina relief adding, “If people don’t think that the Member is up to it, they ought to fire the Member. But I don’t think denigrating the job is a good idea.”