IF CONGRESS can’t even manage to give itself a raise, how can it be expected to deal with critical issues that really can’t be put off, such as raising the debt ceiling? The dispiriting answer is that distrust and inaction are the new norms of government.
The breakdown in a deal over congressional pay is a case study in dysfunction. It has been 10 years since members of Congress received any kind of raise. Cost-of-living adjustments used to be automatic, but they were suspended in 2009 as the country went through the recession and lawmakers thought they needed to make sacrifices. Now, economic times are better, and the frozen pay rate of $174,000 a year for rank-and-file members has been outpaced by the cost of living. The current salary is nearly triple U.S. median income, but congressional salaries would now be $210,900 if the automatic raises had not been stopped. And most members must juggle working in high-cost Washington with maintaining their residency requirement at home.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) privately negotiated a deal with Republican House leaders to allow for a $4,500 cost-of-living increase to go into effect next year. Because there’s always bound to be some backlash when Congress gives itself a raise, bipartisan support was essential, but — no surprise — it didn’t last long. There was a storm of Twitter criticism, freshman Democrats running for reelection in tough districts became skittish, and — as though to prove their worries were well-placed — the campaign arm of House Republicans sent out an email attacking “socialist elites” in the Democratic Party for wanting higher pay.
Mr. Hoyer pulled back the plan, but he has hopes of reviving it later this year. While the optics may not be on his side, the arguments are. Limits on lawmakers’ pay affect congressional staffers who are not allowed to make more than members, which, in turn, puts Congress at a clear disadvantage in competing for talent. Others who support a raise, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), point to the effects of pay and financial pressures on those who serve. “I do not want Congress, at the end of the day,” said Mr. McCarthy, “to be a place where only millionaires serve.”