Congressional COLA: Pause that enriches

Steven Schwalm

February 05, 1992|By Steven Schwalm

DID YOU get a $4,400 pay raise in January?

You did if you were a member of Congress. Despite Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's admonition that the American people must "do more with less," members of the House and Senate can now do less, for more.

Since 1987, when congressional pay was $77,400 and the budget deficit stood at $150 billion, Congress has boosted its pay $52,100, nearly 70 percent, and the deficit has more than doubled, to almost $350 billion.

Meanwhile, if you have a real job, your pay raise -- if you got one -- was much more modest. The average worker got a cost-of-living wage increase of $260.

While previous congressional pay raises prompted fierce controversy, this year's increase went virtually unnoticed. Why? Because this time it was automatic: no debate, no vote. In other words, congressional pay has become another entitlement program.

In 1789, James Madison, one of the authors of the Bill of Rights, and later America's fourth president, warned against ". . . leaving any set of men, without control, to put their hand into public coffers, to take money to put in their pockets." It may have taken 200 years, but Congress finally has found a way to crack the public safe without raising alarms: through automatic cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, as they're known in Washington.

The problem with the COLA is that congressional pay goes up whether it's deserved or not -- and the taxpayers are none the wiser. And this is just how Congress wants it.

Congress first raised its pay in 1816, with a 60 percent salary increase. The voters responded by tossing many of the rascals out. Vermont, Ohio and Delaware replaced every one of their representatives. Georgia sent home six of seven, Kentucky six of eight, and South Carolina six of nine. It was 1856, 40 years later, before Congress dared try that again.

In 1873, Congress voted itself a retroactive 50 percent increase, raising congressional pay to $7,500. In the next election, the Republicans -- who controlled Congress in those days -- were paid back by the voters, losing 96 of 203 seats. The new Congress rolled salaries back to $5,000 per year, and it would be 1907 before congressional pay would again reach $7,500.

Congress has been trying to figure out clever ways to raise its pay ever since. In 1967, Congress set up an outside advisory commission to propose pay increases. And eight years later congressional pay increases were tied to the COLA increases received by federal employees. The new twist: Salaries would go up unless a majority in the House or Senate voted against the increase.

Unfortunately, even this caused our august representatives too much grief. So in 1985 they added an amendment: The vote against a scheduled pay increase had to take place within 30 days. Under this rule, both the House and Senate managed to vote against a recommended pay raise in 1987. The House conveniently missed the deadline by a day, however, and Congress was forced to accept the "unwanted" $12,100 increase.

Pay went up again in 1989: House pay to $125,100 and Senate salaries to $101,900. Last year, the Senate evened things out at $125,100.

While public protests focused on the dollar signs, Congress removed the 1975 provision that allows it to vote down a pay increase. Now members are stuck with the annual COLA increase, whether they want it or not.

PTC With this latest ruse, still another important means of citizen control over our "public servants" has been lost. If Congress were doing what it's supposed to do, the American people wouldn't begrudge its 535 members a generous pay day. But it's not doing a good job. And by creating this cowardly backdoor method of feathering its own nest, Congress once again has betrayed our trust.

Steven Schwalm is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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