Will Congressional Pay Hikes Ever Come Off Autopilot?

Vitter is among those pushing to end automatic pay raises for members of Congress. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Vitter is among those pushing to end automatic pay raises for members of Congress. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 7, 2014 at 5:33pm

Should members of Congress have to vote every time they want a raise?  

The question’s been out there since 1989, coming and going every few years with a limited number of vocal advocates. Current law provides for often-blocked automatic salary increases.  

The idea of flipping the equation might gain traction again after retiring Rep. James P. Moran told CQ Roll Call last week that he and his fellow members are “underpaid.” The Virginia Democrat floated the idea of more money to assist with the expenses associated with keeping a second residence in Washington, D.C.  

It has been five years since the Senate passed a measure that would have ended the practice. The legislative branch appropriations bill, to be marked up this week, will include a provision that would “turn off” member pay raises for the next fiscal year.  

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, told CQ Roll Call that the pay raise issue is “not something we’ve really addressed.”  

It’s not clear if any effort in the Senate will be revived.  

After Moran’s remarks, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was quick to tweet  his disapproval of the current “autopilot” system for the pay increases, and he expanded on the point in a statement on Monday.  

“Too many folks across the country have lost their jobs or have been forced to accept pay freezes or lower paying jobs, and it makes no sense for Congress to continue automatically receiving annual raises without having to publicly vote on it,” Vitter said. “We can start by flatly requiring any member of Congress who wants a raise each year to publicly ask for, defend it, and explain it to their constituents by putting it to a vote.”  

The last real chance for such a change to happen came in 2009, when the Senate passed a bill to end the automatic increases by unanimous consent. That measure, sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have done away with automatic pay raises starting in 2011. It was sent over to the then-Democrat-controlled House, where it died without a floor vote.  

The swift passage of the measure came after senators voted to kill Vitter’s amendment to an omnibus appropriations bill that would have halted automatic cost-of-living adjustments for senators and House members. That amendment had a mixed coalition on each side. There were five Republicans who voted to get rid of the Vitter proposal: Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and since-departed Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Mel Martinez of Florida. (Cochran is facing a tea party primary challenger and has been criticized for that vote as his opponents say he voted to give himself a raise.)  

Voting with Vitter to end the automatic pay raises were Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Ron Wyden of Oregon.  

Neither chamber has made as significant a push for overhauling the law setting up the salary increase structure since the Senate bill passed in 2009.  

But as a practical matter, members haven’t seen a salary hike since Jan. 1, 2009, because they have been routinely blocked in annual spending laws and other legislation. The current level is $174,000 per year for rank-and-file lawmakers, and it looks clear it will remain that way, despite the concerns Moran raised  about the high cost of living for lawmakers in and around Washington, D.C.  

McCaskill has joined Vitter as the leading Democratic senator on the effort to make a statutory change. It’s a longstanding pitchfork-and-torch type issue that used to be championed by Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat unseated in 2010.  

In a sign of how long this debate’s been going on, consider these remarks made by Feingold more than 11 years ago:  

“As my colleagues are aware, it is an unusual thing to have the power to raise our own pay. Few people have that ability. Most of our constituents do not have that power,” Feingold said in a 2003 statement. “And that this power is so unusual is good reason for the Congress to exercise that power openly, and to exercise it subject to regular procedures that include debate, amendment, and a vote on the record.”  

“This stealth pay raise technique began with a change Congress enacted in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. In section 704 of that Act, Members of Congress voted to make themselves entitled to an annual raise equal to half a percentage point less than the employment cost index, one measure of inflation,” Feingold said, referring to the law that remains on the books.  

Feingold led repeated efforts to halt scheduled increases, often running afoul of the Senate’s rules governing consideration of appropriations bills. Under those special rules, amendments to freeze the salaries were not germane.  

The issue, of course, has perennially been a thorny one for members of Congress . Decades ago, a freshman Moran and a freshman Boehner were among 35 new lawmakers who banded together to push pay raise reform .  

Last year, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the second-richest member of Congress, complained on the House floor about having to pay higher health insurance premiums. And Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., got into hot water during last year’s shutdown when she initially refused to give up her pay. “I need my paycheck. That is the bottom line,” she said, before later backtracking .