More than 100 years ago, on the day before adjournment in 1873, Congress voted itself a 50 per cent pay increase, from $5,000 to $7,500 and made it retroactive for two years. In the resulting uproar, the raise was quickly labeled a "salary grab" and a "back-pay steal." On the first day of the second session in 1874, 25 bills were introduced in the House in a scramble to repeal the increase, and the salary was quickly cut back to $5,000.
It was 33 years before Congress considered raising its pay again.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Bryd (D-W. Va.) related that bit of history in a recent Congressional Record in an effort to warn his colleagues about repealing pay raises.
Nevertheless, the House is scheduled to vote this week on rejecting the 29 per cent pay raise Congress received March 1.
At the issue this time is not only the money (salaries went from $44,600 to $57,500) but the fact that Congress took the money without voting on it.
As Byrd points out, it was with the intention of taking pay raises out of politics and "avoiding the conflict of interest" of voting on their own salaries that Congress set up the quadrennial commission by a 1967 law. The commission was to meet every four years, look at the salaries of Congress, the judiciary, and levels of the excutive branch and then recommend a pay level, which would take effect unless rejected by either house.
On Feb. 2, the Senate voted 56 to 42 to table a proposal disapproving the pay increase. But in the more volatile House, where members face elections every two years, the feelings against the big raise ran stronger, and the leadership bottled up a resolution of disapproval in the Post Office Committee, never letting it reach the floor.
Some younger Democrats, like Rep. Leon Panetta, a first termer from California, felt compelled to turn back the raise solely on the ground that a vote had never been taken.
Now, although the pay raise has been in effect since March 1, it must be funded by the legislative appropriations bill due up this week, and strong moves are being made by Republicans, such as Rep. Bill Armstrong (Colo.), to knock it out.
This time the Democratic leadership feels it can't avoid a vote, but it has several ploys up its sleeve it hopes will help stave off a repeal.
The first is to make sure that members have to vote on not only congressional salaries but also on a tied-in raise for some 20,365 upper-grade federal employees (the judiciary can't be touched because the Constitution specifically forbids reducing the salary of a sitting judge).
The rules Committee is expected to fashion an amendment including the Cabinet-level and other upper-grade federal workers in the repeal, and then to rule out all other amendments that might be offered.
Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz), who is helping the leadership fight off the repeal, says that means "Congress will have to vote a rollback for all those people who came to town with the Carter Administration."
Speaker Tip O'Neill says that he is "bitterly opposed" to what he cals a "pay reduction," but that the whip count shows the vote will be "very close."
If the pay repeal does pass, another move according to sources close to the leadership, will be for the Senate, with Byrd's approval, to go ahead and accept the pay increase for themselves.
Byrd, in his history, points out that in 1795, senators got $7 a day while the House only got $6, so there is a precedent for different salaries, though it only lasted a year.
But House members, presumably, would never let themselves be considered worth less than Senators, and so would restore their raise in a House-Senate conference and on the floor.
Before the vote, the House leadership hopes to help its case by passing a bill the Senate has already passed that rejects a 5 to 6 per cent cost-of-living increase scheduled to take effect in October for the judiciary, top executive levels and Congress. That bill is assured of passage.
Democratic Whip John Brademas (Ind.) says the prospects for preserving the pay hike are better today than they would have been in February, because younger members are realizing how much it costs to live in Washington and because a code of ethics, passed by both bodies income to took effect, limits outside income to 15 per cent.
Byrd, who says this is the first pay raise he voted for in 25 years, says the cost of living has increased 61 per cent in eight years and if Congress had kept pace it would be making $68,000 today rather than $57,000. Pay for blue-collar workers increased 70 per cent in that period, and reporters and broadcasters 80 per cent, he says.
But in his history, Byrd inadvertently shows that repeals and rollbacks of congressional pay aren't so uncommon. Of 14 pay increases since 1789, three have been repealed, and in the depression years of 1932 and 1933 Congress reduced its salary twice.