In the fall of 2001, the Senate pushed aside an effort to block lawmakers’ annual pay raise, just as the House had done a few months before. The move wasn’t surprising — both chambers regularly consented to getting an automatic salary bump with little controversy.
A lot has changed in a decade.
Congress hasn’t accepted a pay increase since 2008, leaving rank-and-file members’ salary at $174,000. And with the economy stalled, the unemployment rate high and public opinion of the legislative branch historically low, lawmakers probably won’t see an increase anytime soon.
But how far has the pendulum really swung? Beyond simply forgoing an annual raise, several members have proposed bills that actually would cut their paychecks. So far, leaders haven’t shown much interest in scheduling any of those bills for the floor.
“As Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor has outlined, House Republicans will have an ambitious fall schedule focused squarely on creating middle-class jobs and economic growth,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for Cantor (R-Va.). “Perhaps this is something that [Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid] may consider, since they don’t seem to be doing anything else this year.”
Reid’s (D-Nev.) office declined to comment.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) has found it difficult to drum up interest in her bill to cut the pay of members, the president and the vice president by 10 percent. The measure has just one co-sponsor.
“It’s more uphill than I expected,” she said. “To me it seemed like a no-brainer idea.”
Reps. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) also have measures that would cut lawmakers’ pay by 10 percent beginning in 2013. And Coffman’s bill would implement a massive furlough program, requiring most executive-branch workers to take two weeks of mandatory unpaid leave in 2012.
Last week, Coffman announced that he would offer another bill that would end the “defined-benefit” pension system lawmakers enjoy, shifting them to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced legislation in January that would eliminate automatic salary increases and require an affirmative vote anytime Congress wants to boost its pay.
Then there are the bills that would tie lawmakers’ pay to whether they do their job. Rep. Randy Hultgren’s (R-Ill.) legislation would mandate that if Congress has not completed all of its appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year (Oct. 1), then members’ paychecks would be held in escrow until they finish their work.
Several lawmakers, meanwhile, have proposed variations on the idea that members of Congress and the president shouldn’t get paid in the event of a government shutdown.
All those bills have one thing in common — none has gone anywhere.
“I don’t think it will get out of committee,” Griffith said of his bill. “I would hope that it would.”
Plenty of members believe they deserve six-figure salaries. Many are highly educated, experienced professionals (please save your comments until the end of the column, readers) who could make more money in other jobs.
And maintaining two residences is expensive — witness all the lawmakers who choose to sleep on their office couches and shower in the House gym.
For many years, the belief that members deserved an annual raise prevailed on Capitol Hill. For roughly a decade beginning in the mid-1990s, Republican and Democratic leaders observed an informal truce on the issue, with the result that pay increases went through nearly every year.
“There was an unspoken agreement among the leadership that we would not attack each other and the [party campaign] committees would not attack each other” over the raises, recalled Steve Elmendorf, who served as top aide to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Party leaders still aren’t going to war over the issue, but the political climate has shifted enough that members chose to block their pay raises in 2009 and 2010 and will likely do so again this year.
“The economy is so bad right now, I would be shocked if Congress actually took a pay increase anytime in the next few years,” Griffith said.
Even if the bills to cut member pay don’t move forward, Coffman is optimistic about his measure to change congressional pensions.
“There is a chance for passage of this legislation now,” he said, “where in previous times it never would have seen the light of day.”