If the new 111th Congress, which will meet for the first time on Wednesday, really wants a boost in their ratings and a chance to show the electorate that they are not the same ole wimps playing politics as usual, there’s a way that could jump start their efforts. As a start to their first meeting, majority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid should announce a bill that would rescind the automatic pay increase for all members of Congress, scheduled to begin this week. And in a show of force of how efficient this new Congress intends to be, they should pass the bill immediately.
This would indeed be a good faith effort to demonstrate to those who elected them that Congress is working for the people. It might also help with their public approval ratings, which are still historically low; the latest polls consistently show between 72 and 79 percent disapproval of Congress, though that shouldn’t be the reason for action. It is simply the right thing to do.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, a committee that is the first stop for legislation related to “Payment of money out of the contingent fund of the Senate or creating a charge upon the same.” Feinstein is on record telling the Sacramento Bee that she “wants nothing to do with the raise. If she gets a raise, Feinstein plans to give it to charity.”
While charitable contributions are much needed this season, Feinstein’s gesture is cosmetic. Donating the proceeds to charity (which in turn grants the donor a tax break) is hardly the same as actively working to change the law. With an official Recession, talk of Depression, and more big problems than anyone can count on both hands, you’d think our representatives would want to reach not just across the aisle to each other but to the general public who just re-elected them. So why hasn’t the Congressional leadership denounced a pay raise at this time and promised to rescind it?
In 1989, Congress passed the Ethics Reform Act (H.R. 3660). The Act mostly dealt with campaign finance reform, with a section devoted to compensation of federal workers, including members of Congress, taking the issue of Congressional compensation to a new level. For the first time, Congressional pay increases were linked to those of other federal employees, thus assuring Congress of a large constituency that would never lobby against future increases. In effect, the measure increased Congressional pay by a whopping 25 percent within a two-year period, thereafter injecting automatic, albeit smaller, increases. This piece of legislation removed a contentious and perhaps embarrassing process from yearly scrutiny and possible criticism. Without legislative change, the increases since then have been and continue to be on automatic pilot. The public usually doesn’t notice, which was the point.
To be fair, a few lone representatives have periodically attempted to get rid of this automatic atrocity, but never the leadership. In 2004, Rep. Jim Matheson's (D-UT) tried to bring a motion to separate the pay raise from an appropriations bill; it was rejected 240-173. There are now a handful of Congress members who say they will refuse this year’s 2.8 percent increase, all from Indiana: Sen. Evan Bayh (D), Rep. Mike Pence (R), Rep. Dan Burton (R), and Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D). And first-term Arizona Democrat, Rep. Harry Mitchell deserves credit for earlier this year sponsoring legislation (H.R. 5087) that would have blocked the automatic pay adjustments that are about to take effect. In spite of the bill’s 34 co-sponsors, it never made it out of committee.
Had Mitchell’s bill passed, it would have been a good start, but would not have done enough. Just rescinding the increase for this year is show and tell for public consumption; the increases will kick in again automatically next year anyway.
That’s not to say that our representatives shouldn’t be paid, and paid fairly. However, it may be worth remembering that at the time of the Ethics Reform Act, we were still recovering from the stock market crash and there was much talk of a recession; Congressional pay raises had previously been voted down.
Given our current economic problems, much worse than what we were facing in 1989, Congressional pay hikes are unconscionable. But even in good times, legislation like this buries a truth from the public and feels duplicitous. When asked, representatives are happy to go on record, and even on camera, to demonstrate their empathy for the general public. Let’s face it: With few exceptions, the men and women we send to Washington are millionaires, some many times over. None are on par with average workers struggling to stay in place. In addition to their salaries, they have reduced-cost premier medical insurance and cushy retirement plans, all compliments of the US taxpayers. None are in danger of losing their homes or being bankrupt by illness, and none are worried about retiring in poverty. So when we hear our representatives say that they “feel our pain,” it’s more akin to feeling the pain of characters in a film: We watch them on screen, perhaps shed a few tears, talk about them for a few minutes, and then forget about them and go back to our lives.
The whole concept of automatic pay raises should be revoked so that every time Congress thinks they deserve a pay raise, they would be required to bring the issue to the floor for discussion and vote. It should be part of the transparent government Obama has been advocating. In fact, in good conscience given our collective economic insecurity, Congress should vote themselves a pay decrease. While on its face this seems radical, it is not unprecedented. During the Great Depression, Congress did just that. In 1925, members of Congress received a yearly salary of $10,000. By 1932 that salary had been reduced by 10 percent to $9,000, and was further cut to $8,500 in 1933. Gradually, the scale was reversed so that by 1935, Congressional pay was back up to a yearly $10,000. Based on Consumer Price Index calculations, $10,000 in 1925 would be worth $118,280 in 2007, or based on a Gross Domestic Product index, it would be worth $99,210. To put this in perspective, the average salary for a member of Congress in 2008 was $169,300 while the average median salary for workers across seven different sectors was $58,613.
This is not to suggest that the members of Congress shouldn’t be paid or that they are overpaid, but they are paid more than their counterparts during the Depression and more than most Americans today. Most representatives work hard and care both about their country and their jobs. But so do most Americans and many of them need to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet (if they are lucky enough to have even one job). And while it’s true that most members of Congress, regardless of their political persuasion, didn’t choose to serve in government to become wealthy, most are more in love with their power and status than with the compensation package, which is irrelevant to most of their lives. The legislative process that allows them to shield their own pay raises from more frequent public scrutiny exemplifies the hubris of that kind of power.
Granted, a bill that decreased Congressional pay would not be wildly popular in the halls of Congress, but it would be a positive step that might go a long way in reversing their poll numbers. It also could start eliminating the double standard. Congress was quite willing to publicly excoriate the auto workers and their managers about their compensation, requiring some cuts in exchange for the federal loans and smiling for the cameras when some CEOs suggested that they would take only $1 in pay this year. The thinking was that these workers and their managers ran their companies into the ground and didn’t deserve much in the way of compensation.
Congress, as the body in charge of appropriations and spending, has much of the responsibility for driving our economy into the ground. Surely they are not alone in this mess, but the lack of pushback for spending on an unpopular war, lack of oversight of just about every federal agency, the lack of prosecution and investigation of the SEC and of banking practices when the alarms were going off – all can and should be laid at the feet of Congress. Yes, we’ve had a president who thinks he’s the unitary executive and is above the law, but we also had a Congress that rarely challenged that premise. Even when they did make an effort, they failed. More often than not, they simply folded the deck and went home instead of standing up for the rule of law. They lost both the war and the battle in their limp and limited efforts to contain a bully president. Surely this counts as poor management, too.
While a small pay cut would not change the lifestyle of anyone in Congress and would hardly make a dent in injecting some needed cash into the federal coffers, it would go a long way toward restoring the faith of the electorate.