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Judges’ Group Jumps Into COLA Fray

With House and Senate lawmakers preparing to battle over whether Congress should eliminate its own annual pay raise for the coming year, the administrative body of the U.S. court system is working to ensure federal judges aren’t drawn into the fight.

In the wake of a recent overwhelming Senate vote to freeze Congressional pay at fiscal 2005 levels, the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets administrative policies for the federal court system, has begun actively reaching out to Members on the cost-of-living adjustment.

Although the Senate legislation is limited solely to lawmakers’ salaries, the action has drawn concern from the Judicial Conference, because in recent years, when Congress has suspended its own pay raise, it has likewise done away with increases for federal judges and senior-level presidential appointees. Such was the case in 1994 to 1997, and again in 1999.

“[I]f Congress decides not to provide a cost-of-living adjustment to its Members, we urge you nevertheless to support a pay adjustment for judges,” Judicial Conference officials L. Ralph Mecham and D. Brock Hornby urged in an Oct. 18 letter to Republican and Democratic leadership of both chambers.

While the Senate legislation, sponsored by Arizona Republican Jon Kyl as an amendment to a fiscal 2006 appropriations bill, is limited to Members’ salaries — unlike previous legislation — Mecham noted that it is unlikely Congress would elect to freeze only its pay in the final version of the legislation.

“If they do away with the Congressional COLA, we’re dead meat,” Mecham said in an interview Thursday. “If they don’t get one, we don’t get one.”

Under a federal law enacted in 1989, Members of Congress automatically receive an annual pay raise unless they approve legislation to block the COLA. The increase is based on the most recent full-year Employment Cost Index, minus 0.5 percent.

Although that law, the Ethics Reform Act, also specifies that federal judges will receive the automated increases, a statute established in 1981 continues to require that Congress take affirmative action in order for the judiciary to receive a pay raise. That language is typically included in the bill that funds the federal judiciary.

In its letter to Congressional leadership, the Judicial Conference urged lawmakers to maintain language now included in the fiscal 2006 Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, judiciary and District of Columbia spending bill that would provide federal judges with a 1.9 percent increase in the new fiscal year.

“For the federal judiciary, failure to pass this cost-of-living adjustment would have a profound and demoralizing impact,” the letter stated. “If the erosion in the value of the federal judicial salary continues, the compensation rates will soon fall below the minimum level needed to retain and attract to the federal bench the most capable lawyers who come from all socioeconomic classes and geographical areas.”

Citing previous salary freezes, the letter asserts that both judges and Members alike have “sacrificed financially for more than a decade,” receiving a cumulative pay increase of only 21.4 percent, while federal employees received an average 52.8 percent increase.

Lawmakers and members of the judicial branch are currently paid on similar scales: Both District Court judges and rank-and-file Members receive the minimum $162,100, while the highest-ranking officials — chief justice, Speaker and Majority Leader — receive the maximum $208,100.

If Congress does not ultimately block the annual pay raise, rank-and-file Members will receive an additional $3,100 beginning in January, bringing pay for rank-and-file lawmakers to $165,200. Members of the elected leadership would receive a slightly larger increase.

While Congress could elect to limit its own salary while still providing an increase to the federal judiciary, Mecham acknowledges that is an unlikely outcome.

“The decision will really be made on the Congressional COLA and we will ride along,” said Mecham, who is the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which provides administrative, legal, financial management, program and information technology services to the federal courts, as well as support and staff counsel to the Judicial Conference.

Despite positive feedback from some lawmakers thus far, Mecham is reserved in his expectations, stating only that that he is “feeling hopeful” about the prospects of the judicial COLA.

Citing remarks made earlier this month by House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opposing a freeze on Congressional pay, Mecham added: “That was the best we could ask for.”

Although Senators overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the fiscal 2006 Transportation-Treasury spending bill to eliminate their own pay raise, the House earlier defeated a similar proposal on a procedural motion, circumventing an up-or-down vote on the COLA.

According to a GOP aide familiar with the Senate amendment, the measure did not include judges because it was primarily intended to highlight Congressional efforts to offset spending for relief effort for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“This was primarily about Congress leading by example,” the aide said. The measure is expected to save only $2 million, a small amount by Congressional standards.

The issue will be settled when the chambers meet in conference committee to negotiate differences in the their respective versions of the legislation.

In an interview last week, however, House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) vowed to fight the Senate amendment.

“I would not even consider eliminating the COLA,” Lewis said, noting that many House lawmakers are not independently wealthy and must continue to provide for their families with their Congressional salary.

“I wouldn’t even consider it. I think it’s a stupid idea,” Lewis added. The California lawmaker then suggested that Senate sponsors of the legislation should return any pay raise they receive as a result of the COLA.

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