Members of Congress quietly allow their third pay increase in four years
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The hour was late, the issue radioactive. Under cover of darkness, members of Congress let their third pay increase in four years go through. Come January, their pay will jump $4,900 a year to $150,000.
Defenders say the raise is well-deserved _ too small, if anything. Critics call it excessive, not to mention ill-timed during recession and war. But on one thing, many on both sides agree: The way the raise came about stinks.
Under a complex system approved in 1989, many congressional pay raises are automatic unless Congress acts to block them _ a debate that often plays out in the dead of night.
“It looks bad. It smells bad. It hurts Congress in the eyes of the public,” said Paul Light, a Brookings Institution expert on government who nonetheless thinks legislators are underpaid. “They are terrified of pay increases. They always have been.”
Not scared enough to suit Gary Ruskin, director of the nonprofit Congressional Accountability Project, one of a number of watchdog groups that opposes the raise.
He points to the steady upward march of congressional pay in recent years, from $98,400 in 1990 to $150,000 come January.
As for the coming raise, he says: “This is an effort by some of the most greedy people on the planet to stuff more taxpayers’ money into their own wallets. The bipartisan greed caucus is alive and well.”
Although statistics are hard to come by, pay-raise defenders say that legislators are paid considerably less than those who do equivalent work for private companies, yet lawmakers have many extra expenses, such as maintaining homes in both Washington and their districts.
They also say that since congressional pay rates affect the salaries for federal judges and other senior government officials, pay for others in government also is being kept too low.
Light called the system “the worst of all possible worlds.” The whole idea behind tying congressional pay to that of others in government was to give legislators some political cover to raise their own salaries, he said.
But in reality, “Congress still shies from needed pay increases and these other positions are lagging,” Light said.
Critics insist it’s wrong to compare legislators’ pay with their counterparts in business.
“The purpose of the private sector is to earn money for shareholders,” said Ruskin. “The purpose of the public sector is to do the public’s will.”
Furthermore, critics point to congressional perquisites, such as a generous pension plan, that create a “princely” compensation package. And they argue that now is the time to forego a raise to show solidarity with struggling Americans.
The National Taxpayers Union sent members of Congress a letter after the Sept. 11 terror attacks urging them to give up the raise, noting that Congress cut its own pay twice during the Depression and suspended its two-month-old pension plan and froze its pay during World War II.
This time, Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the union, says: “Apparently, they’re having trouble paying the rent and buying groceries on $145,000 a year.”
Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., pushed for a vote Dec.7 to block the pay raise from taking effect. But in a late-night maneuver, legislators used a 65-33 vote on a procedural matter to thwart Feingold’s effort.
Feingold, who will turn down the raise and holds his own salary to the $136,700 he earned when first elected, says legislators are neither overpaid nor underpaid.
“I just think the process of an automatic pay raise system is wrong,” he said. “If we deserve a pay raise, we should have to vote on it.” Feingold, who has been mentioned in some lists of possible Democratic presidential hopefuls, also stood to get some publicity for his effort, which he knew in advance was a lost cause.
In trying to block the raise, he said, “I probably caught more flak on this than on anything else. … People don’t like people upsetting the apple cart on this one.”
It’s an old debate. Benjamin Franklin considered proposing that no one in government be paid, but the founding fathers decided that would be unfair. More than 200 years later, legislators and Americans are still uncertain how to strike the right balance.
“You want to be fair with your pay,” Light said, “but you don’t want government officials to be so well paid that they have no clue what the general public is feeling.”
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