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Matheson, Vitter Resume Fight Against Automatic Raises

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) has resurrected a bill that would do away with the automatic cost-of-living adjustment to Members’ salaries, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said he hopes to soon bring a similar proposal before the Senate.

Members’ salaries automatically increase based on inflation, unless lawmakers vote to forgo the raise. Matheson has long fought to end the automatic adjustment, and this time his cause is getting a boost from someone who has the attention of House GOP leaders. Assistant Majority Whip Michael McCaul (Texas) is one of three Republicans co-sponsoring the reprisal of Matheson’s 2009 bill, in addition to three Democratic co-sponsors.

“I don’t think it’s right. Why should Members of Congress have a very opaque process put in place where the COLA happens without any vote?” Matheson asked. “For the integrity of the institution, it’s important that this is done in a transparent way.”

Vitter wants the Senate to also consider ending the automatic pay raise, and he plans to offer a proposal next week in the form of an amendment to an as-yet-undetermined bill, a spokesman for the Louisiana Republican said.

“Particularly in these tough economic times, having Members of Congress granted virtually automatic pay raises every year is really offensive. That’s why I’ve long advocated this change,” Vitter said in a statement. 

Vitter has pressed the issue before. His attempt to amend a fiscal 2009 omnibus spending package with language ending the automatic adjustment was rejected, but only after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised to offer the proposal as a stand-alone bill. The Senate passed that bill in March 2009, but then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) never brought it to a vote in the House.

Prospects for a floor vote in the House may have changed with the GOP’s takeover of the majority. Speaker John Boehner supported Matheson’s bill in 2009 when Boehner was Minority Leader, the Ohio Republican’s spokesman told Roll Call at the time.

McCaul said he will speak to Boehner personally and whip his Conference, especially the 87 Republican freshmen, many of whom ran campaigns built on fiscal conservatism and transparency.

“I can’t imagine any of those guys being opposed to this thing,” McCaul said. “If we’re going to have YouCuts every week and we’re talking about spending, this plays right into our Pledge to America and our theme.” YouCut is the GOP’s online budget-cutting initiative, and the pledge is the House Republicans’ agenda.

The co-sponsors of Matheson’s bill can cast a strategically wide net into Congressional subsets: McCaul and Rep. Steve Austria (Ohio) sit on the Republican Study Committee, while Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) is a member of the Tea Party Caucus. On the Democratic side, Matheson is a chief deputy Minority Whip and a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Rep. Gary Peters (Mich.) is part of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) is an appropriator who sits on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is also co-sponsoring the bill, which wouldn’t take effect until 2013.

Other lawmakers are working on the issue. For instance, GOP Reps. Vern Buchanan (Fla.) and Joe Wilson (S.C.) introduced a bill similar to Matheson’s this month.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has called for the elimination of automatic pay raises for the civilian federal workforce. McCaul questioned the wisdom of moving on Jordan’s legislation without ending Members’ cost-of-living adjustments.

“That kind of plays into that arrogance of, ‘We’re making everyone else do it, but we’re going to exempt ourselves,’” McCaul said.

Some Members would even cut lawmakers’ salaries. Just before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured in a shooting Jan. 8, the Arizona Democrat proposed a 5 percent reduction. Rep. Morgan Griffith would go even further: The Virginia Republican is sponsoring a measure that would slash salaries by 10 percent.

The last time Members of Congress took pay cuts was during the Great Depression, when their salaries fell from $9,000 to $8,500 per year. The current yearly salary of rank-and-file Members is $174,000. Majority and minority leaders receive $193,400, and the Speaker takes in $223,500.

Matheson and other proponents of ending the automatic pay raises are fighting an uphill battle. Congress has already voted to go without a cost-of-living raise for this year, so there is little pressure to act now. Furthermore, House and Senate leaders have managed to keep such bills off the chambers’ floors for two decades, and Democrats and Republicans have had an off-and-on agreement to keep the issue out of campaign politics.

Vitter, in the meantime, has lost his most steadfast collaborator on the issue: Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was defeated in his re-election bid in November.

Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said the Republican has reached out to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who has previously supported ending the automatic pay raises. Webb’s office could not be reached for comment.

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