Members’ COLA Faces Little Risk

Posted April 4, 2008 at 6:15pm

Members on both sides of the aisle said Congress’ annual pay raise appears all but guaranteed even as debate over how to address the nation’s escalating economic woes dominates Capitol Hill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) last week harshly criticized even the suggestion that lawmakers would consider freezing their pay.

“It’s a de minimis fiscal issue,” Hoyer said, then went on to disparage the issue as a distraction from more significant matters currently before Congress. “I’m frustrated by this.”

Despite that certainty, a handful of Members, led by Democratic freshmen, plan to agitate for a vote on the otherwise automatic annual pay raise.

“If there’s ever been a year when the pay raise is not justified, it’s this year with the economy,” said Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), one of several freshman Democrats among the 33 lawmakers who have signed onto a measure by freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) to block the pay raise scheduled to take effect in January 2009.

“I tried to keep the pay raise from going into effect because I did not believe that we should be receiving a pay raise with so many people suffering, with the economy in the shape that it’s in, we’re in the middle of a war, the deficit continues to grow,” Mitchell told The (Mesa, Ariz.) Tribune earlier this year, referring to a similar effort he sponsored in the first session that languished in committee.

Mitchell could not be reached for comment Friday, but told The Tribune that he remains pessimistic about the fate of his legislation this year.

Both the House and Senate did temporarily block their own pay increases in 2007 in an effort to highlight the long-stagnant federal minimum wage, but the pay increase eventually took effect in May when an increase in the minimum wage was included in the Iraq War supplemental spending bill.

Currently rank-and-file lawmakers are paid an annual salary of $169,300, while the House Majority and Minority Leaders receive $188,100, and the Speaker’s paychecks total $217,400. House and Senate lawmakers receive an automatic increase unless they vote against it.

Opponents of the automatic COLA face a formidable challenge, however, as House leaders also have typically blocked efforts to force floor votes on the increase.

Nevertheless, Altmire said he thinks it would be good for party leaders to “step back” and assess whether they should allow the raise to move forward for next year.

“There’s a lot of Americans struggling in this economy, and Members should have the opportunity to decline it,” echoed Republican Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), who is not a co-sponsor of the legislation.

But Pence added that he does support a “reasonable” raise: “If it’s truly just a cost-of-living increase it’s just inflation protection. … You’re leaving the job in the condition you found it.”

In fact, the large majority of lawmakers on the Hill support the pay raise, even if they may not say so publicly, and efforts by party leaders to try to block it would be viewed by many insiders as political suicide.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said he believes the pay increase is a “silly issue” to use to score political points.

“There’s always going to be people who will demagogue on this issue because it’s easy,” Moran said. Like other Members, Moran argued that higher Congressional pay is needed to attract better lawmakers.

“The lower the pay, the lower the quality,” he said.

Moran also offered that it isn’t Members who are most directly affected by the pay increase, or lack thereof.

“It doesn’t have any impact on the Members,” Moran asserted. “What it does is impact the wives and the children and the quality of the profession.”

Pence echoed that argument, adding that it is unfair to tie Member pay to political issues such as the minimum wage.

“I would be very pleased to see it return to the cease-fire of years past,” Pence said.

Political attacks over the annual pay raise by both Republican and Democratic challengers in the 2006 cycle ended a tacit agreement between the parties not to engage the issue on the campaign trail.

The lack of an up-or-down vote on the pay raise since 1998 has made it increasingly difficult for candidates to use the pay increase as a political weapon, since Members cannot technically be attacked for voting to raise their own pay, only for accepting the larger salary.

The pay raise became automatic under a law passed in 1989, although lawmakers froze their pay following the 1993 increase, and blocked subsequent raises until 1997 when their salaries increased to $136,700. Members last voted to kill their salary increase in its entirety in 1998.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said he does not anticipate an organized attack against the issue ahead of the November elections.

“I think it depends largely on how individual Members address it,” he said.

A Republican campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that challengers would keep a close eye on Democrats who had argued against the pay raise in the previous cycle.

“It will be interesting to see how many of those Democrats, who campaigned on this issue last cycle, actually hold true to their word. If not, they will certainly be vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, especially at a time when voters are feeling restless about the economy,” the official said.

Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) said that since being elected in 2006, he has pledged not to take a pay increase until the federal budget is balanced. He also said it might not be a bad idea for Members to have a discussion about whether their pay reward should be contingent upon something like eliminating the deficit because it would give lawmakers “a personal stake in it.”

“I don’t think it would hurt,” Murphy added.

Murphy was one of several Democratic challengers in 2006 who used the pay raise issue to make their case for change in Washington. One Murphy ad pointed out that Members of Congress had received $40,000 in pay increases since the last time the minimum wage was increased.

“It was a powerful contrast,” Murphy said. “I think rightfully so, Member pay can be a potent political issue.”

Even now, Murphy said he sees a lot of heads nodding when he speaks to groups in his district and explains his pledge not to take a pay raise until the budget is balanced. He said he understands that’s only a symbolic gesture, but it’s one that is well-received.

“I think my constituents appreciate the symbolism,” he said.

Both Mitchell and Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who used the pay raise to criticize then-Rep. Bob Ney (R) in the 2006 elections, have agreed to symbolically forgo pay raises, donating the additional funds to charities in their districts.

Fourth-term Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who has often single-handedly led the effort in the House to force a vote on the automatic raise, said he will pursue a vote during debate on the fiscal 2009 appropriations bills.

“I think the current environment certainly calls that into question. … It’s important for Congress to tighten its own belt,” Matheson said.