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House Studies Cost-of-Living Pay Increase

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999; Page A27

House leaders are gingerly exploring the prospect of providing a congressional cost-of-living raise, and several Democrats said they believed the proposal could pass if the issue came to the floor for an up-or-down vote.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who together discussed the issue with leaders of their parties on Friday, said yesterday they believed members deserved an increase in their $136,700 annual salary.

Under a 1989 law, lawmakers are entitled to an annual raise equivalent to half a percentage point below the employment cost index, a gauge used to measure inflation. But since 1993, lawmakers have voted every year to deny themselves the COLA, with the exception of 1997.

"I feel members of Congress come here, they do their work," Hastert said at his weekly briefing yesterday. "I know there are members that have three or four kids in college at a time. I am not crying crocodile tears, but they need to be able to have a life and provide for their family."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a vocal proponent of the raise, said he believed the House will approve a salary increase this year because of the bipartisan leadership support for the measure.

"We need to do it in the open. We'll have a vote on it," Hoyer said, "If we're going to have respect for this institution, respect for ourselves, respect for our families, we ought to do it."

During Friday's meeting, Hastert also asked House Administration Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to brief the House leaders on a proposal to allot lawmakers a tax-free per diem of $125, similar to the ones enjoyed by many state legislators. That money, which might amount to as much as $20,000 a year, could be deducted from lawmakers' office accounts and would not require a full House vote to take effect.

But the plan quickly ran into opposition among both Democrats and Republicans, who argued that it would appear as if lawmakers were secretly giving themselves a massive pay raise. House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich) predicted such an increase could create a "firestorm," and that lawmakers and their aides instead deserved the same annual raise afforded to federal employees and the military.

"It shouldn't be any more," Bonior said. "It could be a little less."

However, Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said members of Congress should not raise their own income when the country still has a sizable debt.

"When members of Congress enjoy such generous salaries, they forget what it's like to be an ordinary American and pass legislation which is more in keeping with people in their own economic class," Ruskin said.

Leaders from both parties decried the kind of political considerations that often keep lawmakers from boosting their pay. Discussions about the raise have been kept quiet: When House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) broached the topic with his deputy whips on Wednesday, aides were excluded from the room.

Hoyer said he hoped his colleagues would remember no one lost his or her House seat simply because Congress received a raise in 1997. "The '97 experience was a confidence-building experience for members, in that the world didn't fall apart," Hoyer said.

Many members from western states such as California feel particularly penalized because their colleagues in state legislatures receive so many more allowances. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) recalled that as a state legislator, he received a $20,000 a year per diem, a car in his district and Sacramento, and the opportunity to earn outside income during the three months of the year the legislature was not in session.

"I heard about all these perks of Congress. I'm still waiting for them to show up," Rogan said, adding he must finance homes in both Southern California and the District.

The issue will likely come up for a vote in the summer, when the House considers the annual Treasury, Postal Service and General Government appropriations bill. Some lawmakers are sure to object once the measure reaches the floor. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said that "Young Turks" like himself would vehemently oppose any per diem proposal, as well as object to a COLA.

"We ought to lead by example," Sanford said.

The reaction from the Senate was discreetly noncommittal. "We're waiting for the House to send something over," said John Czwartacki, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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