WASHINGTON — After raising the minimum wage by 70 cents an hour this week, many members of Congress are ready to give themselves a pay increase of roughly $4,400 per year.
That would take their annual salaries to nearly $170,000.
Campaigning last year, Democratic leaders said it would be wrong for Congress to accept a pay hike until it raised the minimum wage. That happened on Tuesday, when the minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $5.85 per hour; it will reach $7.25 an hour on July 24, 2009.
Cost-of-living increases are automatic for members of Congress unless they’re voted down. The House of Representatives already has cleared the way for such a raise in 2008, but a bipartisan coalition is out to block it, with critics saying the money could be better spent during a time of war and high deficits.
“This is the people’s money, and we need to use it on their priorities,” said Republican Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, who’s co-sponsoring a bill to prevent the raise. “Increasing the pay of members of Congress is not their priority.”
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said she'd back a similar measure in the Senate.
“I don’t think Congress should get a raise,” she said. “I think it would be a nice thing to tell the American people that we could go a couple years without a raise.”
Under current plans, members of Congress will receive an automatic pay raise, estimated at 2.5 percent, in January. In a show of bipartisan consensus, the House voted 244-181 last month to kill a proposal that would have forced a straight up-or-down vote on the pay increase.
Defending the pay raise on the House floor, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said she was “happy to report that the Democrats kept their promise” in raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade.
Opponents said a raise for Congress would be ill timed.
“According to the recent polls, Americans don’t like the Congress,” said Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican. “Our numbers, lower than President Bush’s numbers, are in the tank. To enact this (cost-of-living increase) will do nothing, in my opinion, to improve our already diminished reputation.”
Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, said congressional popularity is at an all-time low because “viciousness and the partisanship are probably at an all-time record high.” He noted that only two of the first 60 bills the House passed this year were signed into law.
“If we were on a baseball team and we hit two out of 60 . . . we would be sent down to single A ball for such a pathetic percentage,” he said. “So we are not performing well enough to deserve it.”
Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House minority whip, said most Republicans — “with great discipline” — have resisted using the words “pay raise,” instead preferring to call the increase a cost-of-living allowance.
“Every member has some obligation to the institution for the compensation to, as much as possible, keep pace with inflation,” he said. “I think this should be as good a job when I leave it as it was when I took it.”
Opponents are pushing House leaders to schedule a vote on legislation to block an increase. Two such bills have been introduced in the House, though no votes have been scheduled.
“It’s mystifying to me why the House leadership will not allow a straight up-or-down vote on a pay raise,” said Graves. “I vote against every pay raise because taxpayers deserve better.”
Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas Democrat and another co-sponsor of one of the bills, said “democracy sometimes moves slowly,” but she said she’s hopeful that the House will reconsider its position and block the pay raise.
“In my district, the median wage is still going down, so it just doesn’t seem right for Congress to take care of itself,” Boyda said. “I guess maybe it depends where you’re coming from . . . . If we get a pay raise, I will donate it to charity.”
Congress approved the law making its pay raises automatic in 1989, giving legislators an easy way to avoid tough votes that could hurt them during re-election campaigns. Since then, congressional salaries have nearly doubled, from $89,500 to $165,200 a year.
President Bush is paid $400,000 a year. His salary isn't affected by changes in congressional pay.
Hotakainen reports for The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle.