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House Rejects Bid to Block Lawmakers' Pay Raise

By John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 1997; Page A23

The House narrowly rejected an attempt to block a cost-of-living raise in congressional pay yesterday, taking another step closer to the first increase in lawmakers' salaries since 1993.

After a sometimes impassioned debate over lawmakers' self-worth and the performance of Congress, lawmakers voted 229 to 199 to defeat an attempt by Rep. Linda A. Smith (R-Wash.) to put the House on record in favor of waiving the 2.3 percent inflation adjustment that federal law provides them.

The question of congressional pay has been a politically sensitive one, with lawmakers fearful of drawing the ire of constituents by voting themselves pay raises. To avoid that, Congress established a mechanism in 1989 to automatically adjust lawmakers' pay, along with those of federal judges and other top federal officials, to keep pace with inflation.

But lawmakers have voted since 1993 to reject the annual inflation adjustment, even as the cost of living, as measured by the federal consumer price index, has gone up an average of 2.6 percent annually.

All Maryland and Virginia lawmakers except Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Va.) voted to back the increase.

Rep. John David Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who narrowly won reelection last year and whose Democratic opponent already has raised the pay issue, argued that Congress did not deserve a pay hike because the federal budget was not yet balanced.

"At the very least, any increase in pay should be tied to performance," he said.

In a spirited response, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) called Hayworth's argument "a disservice to the performance of this body." Citing this summer's budget agreement and tax cuts, Livingston declared, "The United States Congress is performing well."

Livingston offered a simple suggestion for any lawmaker who opposed the pay adjustment: "Say he doesn't want it and give it to charity."

Other lawmakers picked up that theme. "I resent this self-flagellation," said Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.). "We deserve the cost-of-living increase. . . . We need some pride in the institution."

"If I were dumb enough to tell my boss I don't want an inflation-adjustment in my salary, I wouldn't be smart enough to have a job," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) told a luncheon gathering of reporters before the vote.

While opponents of the pay adjustment may seek to use other legislation to block it, the matter is likely to be decided in House-Senate negotiations on the appropriations bill funding the Treasury Department and general government operations. The Senate amended its version of the legislation in July to waive the increase.

If the adjustment takes effect, it would raise the current $133,600 pay for a rank-and-file lawmaker by about $3,000 to $136,673.

Smith's motion would have given House negotiators nonbinding instructions to accept the Senate-passed exemption. Smith, who is running for the Senate, and a handful of other lawmakers elected in the GOP tide of 1994 pressed for yesterday's vote, saying they had been denied a direct vote on the matter during last week's swift consideration of the spending bill, which has included the lawmakers' exemption from the increase in previous years.

"What we're talking about here is open, honest government," said Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), who is running to be governor of his home state.

"The issue is not the pay raise, it's how we went about it," said freshman Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.).

But when the bill was being debated last week, Smith was on the floor and did not offer an amendment to waive the inflation adjustment for lawmakers. While the measure was still being considered, Smith left the chamber for a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), head of the GOP's Senate campaign operation, and did not vote on the bill.

A slim 114 to 110 majority of Republicans voted against Smith's effort yesterday, while Democrats opposed it, 115 to 88. Last week, Democratic leaders were annoyed when a majority of Republicans voted against the spending bill as Democrats provided a majority of the votes in favor of it. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) cast a rare vote to back the pay increase. By tradition, the speaker ordinarily does not vote.

The political sensitivity of the pay issue was underscored by the fact that all of the lawmakers who have announced they are seeking other offices voted with Smith to try to block the increase. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is seeking his party's nomination to challenge Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), switched his vote to oppose the pay adjustment once it was clear that Smith's effort would fail. Schumer aides said his original vote was a mistake and that he will donate any inflation adjustment to charity.

Armey acknowledged the issue was a political loser for lawmakers. "Some issues are diamonds, some issues are stone," he said. "This one's a pocketful of rocks."

In seeking to avoid a direct vote on the pay issue, Armey said, House leaders were trying to minimize the political damage on the matter.

"We've got the public relations nightmare whether we do it or whether we don't, how it's done or how it's not done," he said. "My daddy told me years and years ago, 'If the pain's inevitable, the suffering's optional.' We're trying to opt out of the suffering."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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