Tying congressional raises to defense bill, Dems could imperil this vulnerable SC Rep

Joe Cunningham the day after defeating Katie Arrington for SC Congress seat

Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham holds a press conference after a call by his opponent Katie Arrington, conceding the race.
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Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham holds a press conference after a call by his opponent Katie Arrington, conceding the race.

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham could face an impossible question next week: vote against a bill that pays for defense programs, including those in his district, or vote for the bill and effectively approve a pay raise for himself.

The South Carolina Democrat is hoping he won’t have to make that choice, but it seems unavoidable.

House Democratic leaders appear to be moving ahead with their plan to end a longtime ban on automatic increases to congressional salaries, putting Cunningham and other vulnerable incumbents who want to appear tough on spending in a tough political spot.

Paychecks for members of Congress have been capped at $174,000 annually since 2009, but now there’s interest in allowing cost-of-living increases to go into effect. Accordingly, party leaders have chosen to leave an explicit ban on salary increases out of a package of government spending bills, which includes the federal defense spending measure. Without that prohibition, cost-of-living increases would go into effect automatically.

According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, congressional salaries could be adjusted by 2.6%, resulting in a $4,500 raise per member.

Cunningham is pushing for party leaders to back away from the pay raise.

“I can’t justify voting to increase my salary when the national debt just hit 22 trillion dollars for the first time ever,” Cunningham said in a statement to McClatchy. “Congress should focus on balancing the budget, not raising its own pay.

“The people of the Lowcountry sent me to Congress to ban offshore drilling, help our veterans, and tackle our skyrocketing debt,” he continued. “One thing they didn’t send me up here to do is put more money in my own pocket.”

Cunningham is facing one of his party’s toughest reelection fights of the 2020 election cycle. He was the first Democrat to win South Carolina’s 1st District congressional seat in nearly three decades, and now Republicans hope to take the seat back, looking for any signs of weakness they can use to their advantage.

If Cunningham votes against the spending package, he’s voting against funding programs that are crucial to his state and district that have a significant military presence. If he votes for the legislation, Republicans will accuse Cunningham of looking out for his own self-interest.

How to vote presents less of a conundrum for Republicans, including those in the South Carolina delegation: Since the spending package is a product of Democrats who control the U.S. House, many GOP members aren’t likely to vote for the legislation, anyway.

But in a follow-up interview with McClatchy, Cunningham cautioned that Republicans won’t come out unscathed.

“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an issue for the institution, and whether this is the message that Congress, Democrat or Republican, wants to be sending back to middle class Americans, that we’re voting for a salary increase,” he said. “It causes me a lot of concern that that this is something that we’re actually considering taking up.”

‘See what happens’

Cunningham has taken his concerns directly to U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.

“He just listened,” Cunningham said. “He understands the positions that members like me take, and he’s always been receptive to any ideas or issues I’ve brought to him. I don’t know what’s going to become of this and how it will be taken into consideration, but this is what my job is, just to be open and honest about where we stand and why we stand there.”

Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, said the majority leader has been discussing “the issue of a possible cost-of-living adjustment with members on both sides of the aisle.”

In the best case scenario, Democratic leaders would agree to just put the ban back into the spending bill. Another compromise would be for leaders to allow debate, and a vote, on the House floor on Cunningham’s proposed amendment to reinstate it.

A handful of other lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, have submitted similar amendments for consideration.

Cunningham’s real hope is that Democrats agree to hold a vote on a completely separate piece of legislation dealing with whether to bring back cost-of-living increases for members of Congress.

If Democratic leaders ignore his requests, Cunningham will have to decide how to proceed — and he wasn’t ready to make threats one way or the other.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said.

Cunningham also made clear that even if Congress does ultimately approve a cost-of-living increase, he would find a way to return the excess money, either giving it back to the Treasury Department or donating it to charity.

Evan Hollander, a Democratic spokesman for the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that lawmakers on the panel chose not to stop salary increases from going into effect in their spending bill because “there appears to be bipartisan support for ... modest inflation adjustments.”

If lawmakers want to take issue with that, Hollander added, members should pursue that “through the authorizing process” — that is, through legislation not tied to the federal spending process.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.