By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; 6:07 PM
The House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday would block lawmakers from getting their scheduled $1,600 raise for next year, a symbolic measure designed to show Congress understands the angst of voters suffering from the recession.
The measure, a similar to one passed unanimously in the Senate last week, would keep members' salaries at $174,000, rather than funding a raise that is based on a formula that reflects adjustments in salaries for workers outside of the government. Under the pay system, congressional pay automatically increases each year unless the body votes to block an increase.
Lawmakers frequently push such pay freezes in election years, and they are generally even more eager to do so in the midst of a recession.
The freeze, which Congress also passed last year, accomplishes little in a public-policy sense; the federal budget deficit is estimated at $1.3 trillion this year; the bill passed Tuesday would save less than $1 million.
At the same time, few lawmakers want to defend their own pay, as many in Congress are millionaires from previous work and the median household income in America remains just above $52,000.
Some lawmakers are calling for Congress to do more on pay issues. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), joined by a bipartisan group of members who face tough reelection races this fall, has called for a 5 percent cut in congressional pay, reducing salaries by $8,700. She cites the example of 1933, when senators and representatives reduced their pay from $9,000 to $8,500 in the midst of the Great Depression. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who championed the pay freeze in the Senate, wants to dump the current system of automatic raises. And Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has called for barring members of Congress from ever getting a raise until the budget is balanced.
The Senate agreed last year to Feingold's proposal, but the House refused to hold a vote on the measure, and leaders there have not suggested they will adopt broader changes to congressional pay.
Norman Ornstein, a nonpartisan congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, has criticized the focus on congressional pay. He argues -- and some members note privately -- that serving in Congress is expensive for a person not already wealthy, because they have to maintain homes in both their local district or state and in Washington. And he said the pay, while high compared with most jobs, isn't far from what young lawyers make at some prestigious firms.
"It's difficult for members of Congress to defend their pay. It's not difficult to get people [worked up] about that," said Ornstein. "The problem, as I see it, is there is no easy or good way to set a level of congressional pay that gives real incentives for people to come to Congress and afford to have two homes."