Congress Seeks to Deny Itself a Raise

House Yet to Vote, but Senate OKs Pay Freeze

Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:35pm

Congress has begun its annual debate over whether to give itself a raise after the Senate’s passage last week of a bill that would freeze Members’ salary for 2011.

It’s still unclear whether the House will follow suit, but a large cadre of House Members are already lining up behind a nearly identical bill sponsored by Reps. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas).

So far, the legislation has 130 co-sponsors — 74 Democrats and 56 Republicans. Last year, Mitchell and Paul garnered 118 co-sponsors for their bill to freeze Members’ pay in 2010 — and the House and Senate ended up agreeing to forgo those raises.

“In these tough economic times, with unemployment so high and so many families struggling to make ends meet, I believe it would be unconscionable for Congress to give itself a raise,” Mitchell said in a statement last week. “The Senate today said no to a raise. I believe it is past time for the House to do the same.”

A senior Democratic aide said Friday that House leaders have begun discussing the issue and will continue discussions early this week. The topic is fraught with political rhetoric; with the country still in a recession, Members from both parties are pushing for the symbolic pay freeze.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to stop the 2011 pay raise. The Senate Budget Committee also moved forward on the issue, accepting an amendment to the 2011 budget resolution that would not only stop the automatic raise but also prohibit Congress from passing any bill to get a 2011 raise.

“There is no reason Members of Congress should get any kind of a pay increase this year,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), the member of the Budget Committee who introduced the amendment. “Our economy is fragile, Alaskans are working every day to keep or find a job and this is not the time for us to bring home a bigger pay check.”

Congress enacted the annual automatic pay increase in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, which set up a formula to determine Members’ annual raise based on the Employment Cost Index. Usually, Members get a raise of about 2 percent or 3 percent. In 2009, for example, they got a raise of $4,700, or about 2.8 percent.

The 2011 raise has not been determined yet, but Members now get a salary of $174,000. House and Senate leaders are paid more. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for example, has a salary of $223,500, while the majority and minority leaders of both chambers get a salary of $193,400.

If the House follows the Senate and passes a bill to stop Members’ raises, lawmakers will face their third consecutive year with the same salary. But Members have gone on such a streak before, denying themselves raises in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999. They also skipped a raise in 2007.

Still, a small group of lawmakers wants to make a salary freeze the status quo, forcing Congress to pass a bill when lawmakers want a raise. Congress came closest to that move last year, when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) refused to vote for the 2009 omnibus unless Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put to a vote an amendment ending automatic pay raises. Reid ended up introducing almost identical stand-alone legislation, which passed the Senate along with a clean omnibus.

The House still has not taken up that bill — which isn’t a surprise, considering Members would be politically inclined to vote for it even if they didn’t agree with its premise.

For years, House and Senate leaders have followed an unspoken agreement not to put such legislation on the floor, since Members who vote against it could face repercussions in their campaigns.

Last week, Feingold argued that ending the automatic increase would save taxpayers $80 million over the next decade. But he also applauded the smaller step taken by the Senate on Thursday in passing his bill to stop the 2011 pay raise.

“Congress has set up a system whereby every year members automatically get a pay increase without having to lift a finger. I refuse to be a part of that system, and I will continue to work to permanently end it,” he said in a statement. “But in the meantime, Congress should at least give up its raise for next year. With so many Americans looking for jobs, and trying to figure out how to pay their bills, now is no time to give ourselves a taxpayer-funded pay raise.”