Is it time to pay Congress more?

April 9

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), center, greets a guest at an event. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.)  believes it’s time for members of Congress to receive more compensation, but a House committee meeting Wednesday made clear that the time has not arrived.

Despite sympathetic comments from several members, the House Appropriations Committee rejected a proposal by Moran to create a $25-a-day housing stipend for members who maintain a primary residence more than 50 miles from the Capitol. The stipend would apply only to days Congress is in session and only to members who took it voluntarily.

Moran offered his amendment as the committee was passing the spending bill covering the legislative branch for the upcoming fiscal year, which bars paying a raise to Congress in 2015 for what would be the sixth straight year. Moran, who is retiring after this year, allowed for a voice vote so that his colleagues would not be put on the spot with a recorded vote.

Most lawmakers are paid $174,000 annually; leaders make more. The recent history of their raises, and their pay freezes, can be seen on the accompanying chart.

Moran said that given the number of days Congress typically is in session, the stipend he proposed would be worth about $2,800 a year, about the same dollar amount as Congress would receive in a 2015 raise, under the underlying law, if the indicated 1.6 percent raise were paid. He noted that many state legislatures pay such stipends.

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Moran said that since he first spoke out last week in favor of breaking the pay freeze, his office has been “inundated with thousands of calls, almost all of them using obscene language, none of them supportive.”

“My principal concern is the impact of a continued pay freeze on the Congress over time. Now that the issue has been sufficiently politicized, which party is going to allow, much less advocate, for a member salary adjustment? I’d be surprised if this provision doesn’t become an obligatory provision of the legislative branch bill,” he said.

He added: “I think there’s a legitimate fear that the House is going to be increasingly populated by two types of members. One will be those who come for only a couple of terms before multiplying their salary in the private sector as a result of their service, the other those who are sufficiently independently wealthy for whom our salary is a rounding error of their net worth.

“We need a diversity of perspective in the House. The ability to serve in the Congress should not be limited to those who don’t have to give any thought to paying out-of-pocket living expenses in D.C.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chair of the legislative branch subcommittee, said Moran “makes a very important point about the potential over time of changing the character of the House.” But, he added,  “I think this discussion needs to go on for a while.”

Similarly, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the issue is worth considering further. “We do run the risk over time, especially given that we are living and working in a very expensive city, that it will be only possible for people of means to serve in the House of Representatives,” she said.

Moran indicated that he might raise the issue again when the bill reaches a vote on the House floor.

Congress has faced a pay freeze longer than the executive branch federal employees, who broke a three-year freeze when they received a 1 percent raise in January. Under President Obama’s budget proposal they would receive the same in January 2015. A budget plan drawn up by House Republicans that is up for a floor vote is silent on a raise, as is a competing Democratic plan; some congressional Democrats meanwhile have proposed boosting the increase to 3.3 percent.

Under a 1989 law, a raise is to be paid to Congress each year, based within limits on an indicator of private sector wage growth. That raise happens unless Congress votes to reject it. That provision was designed to put the always touchy issue of congressional raises on autopilot and avoid the need for an affirmative vote for a raise. The 27th Amendment, ratified in 1992, bars enactment of a law changing the pay of a currently sitting Congress but did not prevent paying raises resulting from the 1989 law’s formula.

The Senate has not started drafting its counterpart bill, but House endorsement of a continued freeze in the past has set a strong precedent for the upper chamber to follow suit.

Indicated and Actual Raises for Congress in Recent Years

Year       Indicated Raise                 Actual Raise

1992                       3.5%                       3.5%

1993                       3.2%                       3.2%

1994                       2.1%                       0

1995                       2.6%                       0

1996                       2.3%                       0

1997                       2.3%                       0

1998                       2.9%                       2.3%

1999                       3.4%                       0

2000                       3.4%                       3.4%

2001                       3.0%                       2.7%

2002                       3.4%                       3.4%

2003                       3.3%                       3.1%

2004a                    2.2%                       2.2%

2005                       2.5%                       2.5%

2006                       1.9%                       1.9%

2007                       2.0%                       0

2008                       2.7%                       2.5%

2009                       2.8%                       2.8%

2010                       2.1%                       0

2011                       0.9%                       0

2012                       1.3%                       0

2013                       1.1%                       0

2014                       1.2%                       0

2015                       1.6%                      –

Source: Congressional Research Service

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