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Idea of the Day: A Member Per Diem

Any mention of Congressional pay hikes in the halls of the Capitol usually unleashes scrutiny from fiscal hawks, outside watchdogs and the press, but Rep. Mike Capuano (Mass.) — a Democratic point man on rules and ethics reform — thinks it’s something the House should consider.

In particular, Capuano said last week he is open to examining the idea of “per diem” allotments for Members, a set daily allowance that would be provided to lawmakers for various expenses when Congress is in session. It’s a compensation tool used by a majority of state legislatures, including in Massachusetts.

“I would support it in concept,” Capuano said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve all thought about it. Those who say they haven’t thought about it are either new or lying.”

It’s not so much a new idea as a politically unpopular one. For years, to no avail, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) advocated for a per diem with a small handful of other lawmakers.

Most recently, he and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in 2001 advocated for a $165 per diem for each day the House was in session. It went nowhere. Doolittle, now under investigation by the FBI for his ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has bigger concerns these days and generally has avoided answering questions on the per diem subject in the past. And Waters said last week that it’s not something she’s focused on anymore.

“I’ve supported it before,” she said. “It’s not a big issue for me.”

Now in his fifth term, Capuano has become a key Democratic player on matters of ethics, rules and procedures. He also is the third-ranking Democrat on the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over the budget authorizations for Member expenses. The committee’s new chairman, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), is a friend and ally.

Capuano said it is not a top priority for himself or the committee at the moment, and he said any attempt to broach the topic would have to be done carefully. “I’m not aware that anyone’s talking about it at the moment. If we ever looked at it, it shouldn’t be looked at in a vacuum,” he said.

Capuano added, “The question is, what is the job worth, what should it take, what’s your net pay? That’s a hard question. I personally would be in favor of reviewing that in a legitimate sense — let’s get some economists in, and not just to get a per diem — and the answer might just be ‘You’re getting paid fine.’”

Most per diems in states are used to cover travel expenses to and from the legislature. However, Members of Congress have those expenses already allotted for in the Members’ Representational Allowances, so it’s harder to make a case for a per diem in addition to the expense accounts already provided.

“The difference here is our travel is paid by our MRA. If the travel was coming out of our own pocket I think that would make an incredibly strong argument for per diems,” Capuano said. “But I think there’s some legitimate arguments to looking at the concept of what unusual costs are there to have this job, and if they should be part of the base pay or if should we set up things to pay for the job.”

For example, Capuano noted that costs vary widely among Congressional districts and said he also would be open to examining current MRA formulas to factor in those cost-of-living differences and staff salaries. “$50,000 in Boston is a working salary, it’s not bad and you can’t complain, but $50,000 in Iowa you can afford to buy a home and raise a family. I would argue that the MRA could be adjusted” for those considerations, he said.

Since January 2006, House Members have been paid $165,200 annually. When Democrats took control of Congress they voted against the pay raise in January 2007 to make good on a campaign pledge that they would not take a pay hike until the minimum wage was increased — which occurred as part of the Iraq War supplemental in May.

House and Senate Members get an automatic pay raise each year unless they vote

to stop it. According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress is on track for a 2.7 percent increase in January 2008, raising the gross salary to $169,660.

Capuano said there has been “nothing serious” in the way of discussions on per diems, MRAs or pay raises since the 110th Congress began. “It comes and goes, it was hot — not just per diems but the whole concept of pay — in the beginning of the year.” Both GOP and Democratic leadership aides said last week it was unlikely party leaders would sign off on stand-alone per diems.

But while lawmakers tend to shy away from discussing their salaries, raises or per diems, Capuano is candid. “If it’s a legitimate per diem I think that’s fine. If it’s simply a backdoor way to get a pay raise I would argue that’s a mistake. … On a political basis, it might be easier to do [a per diem] in the base pay, but that raises the question: What should the base pay be?” he said. “I can go home and defend my salary any day of the week knowing full well that there are some people who aren’t going to like it.”

For now, the House Administration panel has bigger issues on the agenda, the Massachusetts lawmaker said. Brady has just taken over the gavel following the death of former Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), and they are in the process of hiring additional staff and finalizing organizational details. Capuano also is expected to head up the Franking Commission, he said. “We haven’t really gotten started yet,” he said. “We are behind the eight ball a little bit, but we’ll catch up.”

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