Congressional Pay Special Report
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A Congressional Pay Raise

Wednesday, September 24, 1997; Page A20

THE PROBLEM with congressional pay raises is never the amount so much as the method. It's a hard vote that few members want to cast out in the open if they can help it. So their leaders have traditionally found ways to accommodate them by sneaking the raises through.

This year the tiptoeing occurred in the House. The annual pay of rank-and-file members is now $133,600. It has been stuck at that level for four years. Every year when the Treasury, Postal Service and general government appropriation bill has come up, both houses have dutifully included language denying themselves the automatic cost-of-living increases to which, under standing legislation, they would otherwise be entitled.

The increase is supposed to be the same that civil servants receive – this year, 2.3 percent. The Senate duly renounced it when the Treasury-Postal Service bill was on the floor. The House, when its turn came, sort of forgot. The bill that came out of committee was silent on the subject, and silence in this case is truly golden: No mention and the pay raise takes effect. With both parties in on the gambit, the leadership then zipped the bill to passage, 231 to 192, before an amendment could be offered. The matter is now in conference. Those House members unhappy with the outcome meanwhile continue to search for another vehicle on which to force some kind of vote.

Some people are of the view that members' pay already is far too high. They think it unhealthy in a democracy for the people's representatives to be paid much more than the median for the people themselves. They also think it unseemly for members to vote themselves a raise while cutting the budget.

Others say the responsibilities of members entitle them to more – and more than just the pay of members is involved, since traditionally Congress has kept the pay of judges and senior officials in the executive branch more or less in tandem with its own. Whatever the members deserve, the pay of these other officials needs to be increased to keep the government competitive; that's been the sheltering argument.

We have no quarrel with the current rate of members' pay; it seems commensurate with the job. Nor does it seem to us unfair that members get cost-of-living increases. But they ought not try to award themselves these raises by the back door. A vote in favor is defensible. It's avoiding such a vote that's not.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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