As one of their final acts before the Memorial Day break, members of Congress have begun their annual ritual combining financial self-flagellation with electoral self-preservation.
The burst of loud whining from a cluster of safe-seat members — “We aren’t being paid properly!” complains 12th-term Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of South Florida — didn’t slow things down a bit.
The House passed the annual legislative branch spending bill Tuesday, with language extending the congressional salary freeze for a seventh consecutive year. On the very safe assumption the Senate agrees, the measure will assure the longest period in half a century members will go without a raise.
The situation is sure to continue for at least one additional year. That’s because the opportunity to permit or prevent higher compensation in 2017 will present itself in the middle of the next congressional primary campaign season.
The pattern is becoming so ingrained that deviating from it, especially in the current national economic and political climates, would create an enormous public relations mess. So there’s little likelihood the salary will change before there have been significant and sustained improvement in both private-sector wages and the public’s view of Congress.
Paltry gains in American workers’ pay remain one of the lingering challenges for the economy. Although the monthly job creation numbers and the unemployment rate are back to healthy places, average hourly earnings went up only 2 percent in the past year, continuing a trend in place since the recession bottomed out in 2009. For several years before the economy turned south, American wage gains were routinely above 3 percent and often approached 4 percent.
Gallup’s monthly congressional job approval number, at the same time, stands at 15 percent and hasn’t crested 25 percent since November 2009 — 64 months ago.
That’s about when Congress initially made the pay decision it’s continued to live with since. The Democrats then in charge, sensing the early swells of voter discontent that eventually grew into a GOP tidal wave, concluded it was politically prudent for lawmakers to agree to live through the 2010 election year without any change in their $174,000 annual salaries.
That meant forgoing a $2,600 cost-of-living increase, based on a government calculation of wage gains in the private sector. With budget austerity taking hold on the Hill with ever more force, Congress readily turned aside similar COLAs in the five subsequent years, and now lawmakers are getting ready to spurn the $3,000 inflation adjustment calculated for 2016.
Had lawmakers accepted each of the step-ups, their salary would be $193,400 next year, or 11 percent more than what it will actually be. And in another what if, last year the total congressional payroll would have topped a symbolically potent $100 million for the first time.
What’s genuinely ironic is that Congress, although rarely able to find common cause on matters of major public consequence, has figured out a consistent method for slimming its own budget. Even more curiously, it’s done so by applying a law written with the express intent of creating procedural (and thereby political) distance between the membership and the setting of its pay scale.
The 1989 statute, which says the annual COLA is automatic unless a law is written thwarting it, replaced a system in which Congress stalled its own pay for long stretches before rushing through a mammoth catch-up. Salaries were frozen for a full decade before 1965, for example, then boosted by one-third overnight.
Now, members are never put in the dicey position of being asked to affirmatively vote to put more money in their own pockets. But with each passing year, their “no” votes of self-denial are becoming more politically obligatory — and more damaging to their own families. (Adjusting for inflation, the buying power of a member’s salary in the coming year will be smaller than at any time in the previous quarter-century.)
Few people not connected to the Hill have any sympathy for the financial challenges faced by members of Congress, and on the surface that’s totally understandable. Their median minimum net worth is $450,000, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports — 10 times the national median. (Half of adults are worth more, half less.) Frozen as it’s been, a congressional salary is still triple the household income of a typical American family.
But members of Congress are atypical in design and practice. There are fewer of them than there are Major Leaguers, but even when their legislative batting average is below .200 they’re doing much more to shape the nation than all those millionaire ballplayers. Their sway over federal outlays — more than a fifth of the gross domestic product — gives each of them real influence over the national economy.
They must eschew virtually all other earned income while in office, a real sacrifice for the sorts of entrepreneurs, medical professionals, professors, small-business owners and others whom the public wants to help populate the Capitol. Their jobs require them to live in two places at once, with D.C. having some of the highest housing prices in the country.
The real power and personal expense that come with a seat in Congress may be difficult for the typical constituent to understand, let alone embrace, and they provide only some of the justification for allowing their pay to return to what it was before the recession.
But two other rationalizations go to the heart of what the people say they want.
Voters say they’re looking for the Capitol to rid itself of the back-scratching that has such potential to devolve into corruption. That might be more easily accomplished if members were paid enough that they didn’t feel so jealous of the lobbyists and corporate executives with whom they spend their days.
And the electorate says it wants House members and senators more worthy of their respect. The 114th Congress has 17 months to prove itself. But if it gets a solid annual review in 2016 — in the form of a high rate of incumbent retention — it’s reasonable to suggest that members, like the civilian workers they represent, get a raise in 2018 reflecting that performance assessment.