With little debate, House members voted to give themselves a $4,600 pay increase yesterday, marking the second time since 1993 that lawmakers have agreed to raise their own salaries. Members also moved to double the president's salary to $400,000.
The actions came during deliberations over a $13.5 billion measure funding the Treasury Department and Postal Service, which passed late last night by a vote of 210 to 209.
In years past, the congressional pay raise has been a contentious subject. Under the law, lawmakers get an annual cost-of-living adjustment unless they specifically reject the improved salary. Last year was the first year since 1993 that Congress accepted the raise, and this year will be the second, since the Senate has already allowed the increase to go into effect.
This year, House leaders from both parties endorsed increasing congressional salaries 3.4 percent, from $136,700 to $141,300. And just a handful of members complained about the prospect of a salary boost, before the House voted 276 to 147 to keep the increase. Among local delegations, Reps. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Va.) and Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) voted against the increase, and Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) did not vote.
Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), an opponent of the raise, said the lack of public outcry on the subject made the vote more politically palatable for his colleagues.
"An awful lot of people in the general public are simply not focused on this right now," English said. "These votes are most often controversial in times of economic distress."
Lawmakers engaged in a more spirited debate over a provision boosting future presidents' annual salary from $200,000 to $400,000. Congress has not raised the president's pay since 1969.
Rep. Marshall "Mark" Sanford (R-S.C.) rattled off a long list of benefits the president enjoys, including the White House bowling alley and movie theater as well as "a pretty nice vacation home. It's called Camp David."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) responded that George Washington's salary was set at $25,000, which would have amounted to $4.6 million in today's dollars.
"Four-hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it is 10 percent of what the founding fathers determined the president should be paid," Hoyer said, adding that he thought it qualified as "an appropriate salary for the person who arguably has the toughest job in the world."
The House voted down an amendment to strike the presidential pay raise by a vote of 334 to 82.
The debate over congressional pay came as the House continued to work through a series of politically charged spending bills, funding everything from the nation's parks and military construction projects to the Internal Revenue Service and federal anti-drug efforts.
On all these bills, lawmakers are under severe pressure to live within tight spending caps; the Treasury-Postal bill, for instance, would freeze federal spending under its jurisdiction at last year's levels.
On several of these bills, the House is taking up controversial policy as well as spending issues. Yesterday, for instance, the House rejected an amendment to the Treasury-Postal bill that would have allowed federal employees to choose health plans that provide abortion coverage. The vote was 230 to 188. But the House voted 217 to 200 to provide contraception coverage to federal employees.
In one of the week's most surprising developments, environmentalists scored a number of victories when the House approved a $13.9 billion Interior appropriations bill. The votes put the House on a potential collision course with the Senate, which has inserted a number of anti-environmental provisions into the comparable bill.
In perhaps the most significant vote, the House voted 273 to 151 to prohibit using federal funds to process applications by mining operations on federal land which dump their waste on more than five acres of mill sites. The Senate version of the Interior bill, by contrast, would eliminate the requirement under the 1872 Mining Law limiting mining waste to five acres.
The House adopted a number of other environmental measures, including diverting $30 million from fossil fuel research and development to state land and water conservation efforts. They also voted to take $50 million from the fossil fuel program, with $20 million of it going to pay states for federal use of their land and $30 million to debt reduction.
House members also voted to use $13 million of funding for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to pay for heating and cooling for the poor, and to bar the use of federal funds for building timber access roads.