Congress enjoys an automatic pay raise

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 12:27 a.m.

The U.S. economy is in recession, 10.3 million Americans are unemployed and jobs are being shed at rate unseen since the Nixon administration. Home prices are cratering at a record pace, while foreclosures have hit record heights, and this holiday season was the worst in four decades as consumer confidence hit an all-time low.

And it's all expected to get worse in 2009.

But don't worry: Congress is taken care of.

Today, Congress which has an approval rating of about 20 percent, actually up a few percentage points from the summer receives a 2.8 percent raise.

That translates to a $4,700 increase to the base congressional salary of $169,300 a year.

The raise will cost taxpayers $2.5 million next year.

Yet there is nothing or at least very little that elected representatives can do about it, they say.

Under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, congressional raises have been automatic, and go up in accordance with a formula that considers increases in private-sector salaries.

The only way members of Congress do not receive raises is if they vote to block it, or lower it.

According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, through the automatic-increase method, Congress has upped its pay 12 times since January 1991. In contrast, Congress granted itself a pay increase just 22 times from 1789, when members were paid $6 a day in 2008 dollars, to 1968.

Since the Ethics Reform Act took effect, Congress has voted six times to deny the raise.

It's unclear whether the salary increase will come up for a vote, although some critics believe it should be the top priority when Congress convenes on Monday.

"Members of Congress don't deserve one additional dime of taxpayer money in 2009," Tom Schatz, president of the Council of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C.-based federal budget watchdog group, said in a press release.

"While thousands of Americans are facing layoffs and downsizing, Congress should be mortified to accept a raise. They failed to pass most of their appropriations bills, the deficit is on pace to reach an unprecedented $1 trillion and the national debt stands at $10 trillion. In addition, this Congress has been ethically challenged, plagued with corruption allegations, convictions, and sex scandals."

"While Congress has sat in judgment of everyone from oil company executives and financial services industry executives to domestic automaker CEOs, it has failed spectacularly to police itself," Schatz said. "If Congressional leaders believe that the taxpayers should gives pay raises to this rogue's gallery of ineptitude and venality, they ought to step away from the spiked egg nog."

In a prepared statement, U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns said he opposes the automatic raise.

"I consistently oppose the automatic pay raise for members of Congress, but the House leadership prevented the opportunity to cast a procedural vote against it this year," said Stearns, R-Ocala, whose district includes much of Alachua County, including the University of Florida.

"Last year I voted against the pay raise and we succeeded in blocking it. In addition, I have legislation (H.R. 229) to stop any automatic pay raise for members of Congress following a year with deficit spending."

Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat whose district includes part of southeast Alachua County, could not be reached for comment.

Contact Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-867-4117.

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