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Without Debate, Senate Decides to Skip Pay Raise for Fifth Straight Year

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 1997; Page A19

The Senate chose job security over pay yesterday as it voted to freeze congressional salaries for the fifth year in a row, prompting complaints from a senior member that it was succumbing to "demagoguery" and eroding the caliber of representation on Capitol Hill.

Without waiting for a word of debate, the Senate accepted an amendment to a spending bill for the Treasury Department and general government operations that bars to members of Congress the 2.8 percent cost-of-living increase that will go to other government employees during fiscal 1998.

Members of Congress now receive $133,600 a year, with House and Senate leaders making somewhat more. Under existing law, lawmakers are entitled to an automatic annual inflation adjustment, which this year would have amounted to $3,740, bringing their salaries to $137,340.

But a huge catch-up pay increase approved in the early 1990s proved to be a political liability for incumbents who voted for it, contributing to the defeat of some and making the survivors queasy about ever voting for a pay increase, even if only to keep pace with inflation. So, every year since 1993, both houses have voted to roll back the increase, in effect freezing their pay and losing buying power.

The House has delayed action on its version of the Treasury bill while House leaders of both parties decide whether the time is ripe for a pay increase, along with some modification in House rules banning gifts to lawmakers. The Senate vote is likely to serve as a deterrent to the House, although the House could approve a cost-of-living increase for itself, even if the Senate declines to accept it.

During a brief exchange that followed yesterday's Senate vote, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who joined with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in pushing to block the cost-of-living increase, argued that lawmakers should not be taking pay increases while cutting programs that benefit other Americans as part of their balanced budget plan. "I don't think this is the time," he said.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) argued that a salary that keeps pace with inflation is needed to attract qualified congressional candidates of moderate means, contending that without it Congress will become the haven of "multimillionaires or people who aren't capable of earning over $100,000 anyway."

Both Congress and American democracy as a whole will suffer if "we don't have the guts to stand up to the demagogues," stop the "self-flagellation" and insist on a salary that attracts qualified candidates, Stevens said.

If Congress does not accept a cost-of-living increase this year, pay is likely to remain frozen until after 2000 because of elections and other pressures, he said, meaning that lawmakers' pay will have lost about 35 percent of its buying power over a decade.

Wellstone disagreed with Stevens's argument that people will be discouraged from running for Congress because of the pay. Most Americans regard $133,000 as a "darn good salary," and most of those who run for Congress don't do it for the money, he said. If they are discouraged, it is because of the high costs of running for office, he added.

The House took a pay increase of nearly 30 percent in 1991, raising its pay to $125,100, and the Senate soon followed suit. In future years, automatic inflation adjustments were supposed to take effect, and did so for 1993. Congress decided to forgo the increase scheduled for 1994 and for every year thereafter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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