Pay for performance?

September 17, 2004

IF THERE'S one subject that fosters bipartisan agreement in Congress, it's lawmakers who make a stink about the annual pay raise. They foul up a procedure for approving these boosts that was designed to let them go through unnoticed.

So his colleagues were not amused when Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat from Utah, argued on the House floor Tuesday that in deference to mounting federal deficits and to families struggling through a weak economy, Congress should take a pass on its raise this year.

Without even a word in response, they voted him down on a procedural motion, 235-170. As in the three past years when Mr. Matheson made his lonely stand, he expects some unpleasantness in private conversations.

Nobody likes a demagogue, of which there have been many on this issue over the past couple of decades. But this year, at this time, Mr. Matheson's point seems well taken.

Congress is spending money it doesn't have to pay itself a 2.5 percent raise at a time when many Americans don't even have jobs. Members of Congress have collected more than $20,000 in raises since 1999, not missing out even during the years when the nation endured a wrenching recession.

And it's not the money so much as the principle. Mr. Matheson's pay freeze proposal at least deserved public debate.

Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic whip who helped designed this pay raise system 13 years ago, laments the gamesmanship of it but contends it's far better than the previous practice of lawmakers groveling for outside honoraria.

His blood boils at the "hypocrites," he says, who try to score political points by attacking congressional pay raises, then take the money anyway. (He was not referring to Mr. Matheson, who donates his pay raise to Utah charities.)

The annual raises are set by a formula tied to, but slightly less than, increases for private business executives. With current salaries of $158,000 a year, members of Congress are underpaid compared with private-sector jobs that have similar responsibilities, Mr. Hoyer says. Many of them could be earning much more, he contends.

But few others are willing to argue that point in public, and voters let them get away with it.

Thanks to redistricting and other advantages, incumbents are now all but ensured re-election in most districts.

A discussion of salaries, at least, doesn't seem too much to ask.

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