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.