With U.S. joblessness now at 5.8 percent, employed Americans are clinging to their positions for dear life. Layoff notices — such as the recent announcements of 3,000 workers sacked at GE Capital and 9,400 fired at Motorola — have become as integral to the evening news as weather reports. Against this wartime backdrop, America’s insatiable Congress has behaved disgracefully by hiking its annual pay from $145,100 to $150,000.
The dollars involved are not the key issue. The $4,900 pay hike for each senator and representative is peanuts in terms of total expenditures. Beginning this month, taxpayers will spend $2,621,500 this year in additional pay for all 535 members of Congress. Indeed, this is a pittance compared to the $3.5 billion in peanut subsidies the House authorized last fall.
For starters, though, this pay increase is unconstitutional. The 27th Amendment clearly states: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the senators and representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” In other words, today’s Congress may adjust the next Congress’s paychecks, but not its own. A 1989 law gives Congress automatic cost-of-living adjustments unless it votes to reject them. Of course, COLAs vary compensation, but who’s looking?
Senator Russell Feingold (D., Wisconsin), who refuses all pay increases above the yearly salary level offered upon his swearing-in, moved to kill this reckless money grab on December 7. After just five minutes of debate, the Senate quashed his amendment 33-65.
It’s bad enough when House and Senate members drag their wingtips across America’s founding document to appease loud pressure groups. But to do so merely to fatten their own wallets has a banana-republican stench to it. From his own centrally heated palace in Hell, Ferdinand Marcos winks at Washington.
Even worse, ever-higher legislative pay widens the gap between the incomes of typical citizens and the salaries of their representatives. Congressmen now receive more than three and a half times the median household income of $42,148. Consequently, senators, and representatives anesthetize themselves from their constituents’ economic pain with a cushy, six-figure income far above the earnings of nearly everyone they represent. It’s easier for congressmen to raise taxes and spend federal dollars as if they were vacationing in the tropics when hefty pay packets insulate them from the economic consequences of their actions.
Two reforms would harmonize the rank-and-file with their representatives: First, have taxpayers provide congressmen a reasonable allowance for their Washington domiciles. Unlike most people, they usually maintain residences in the Beltway and back home. Second, each senator and congressman should be paid the median household income. If the economy booms, their pay will grow, along with that of run-of-the-mill Americans. If it stagnates, so will legislators’ wages. And if members of Congress raise taxes, they will suffer along with regular Joes and Janes.
Of course, the Washington Monument sooner will whisk astronauts to Mars. Congress more easily could adopt Senator Feingold’s bill to repeal the 2002 pay hike and eliminate automatic salary increases. (If Congress demands a pay raise, members should have the guts to conduct a roll-call vote for one. And, to keep it Constitutional, they should limit that raise to the incoming Congress.)
Feingold’s proposal mirrors the sacrifices of responsible public servants from yesterday and today. As the National Taxpayers Union’s Pete Sepp reminded congressional leaders in a September 27 letter: “During the Depression era, lawmakers actually reduced their salaries in 1932 and 1933 as gestures of sympathy to millions of fellow citizens who were suffering economic harm.” Through World War II, Congress deferred pay hikes and suspended its pension plan until Hitler and Tojo were crushed.
Iowa state employees last October postponed a wage boost to help Des Moines balance its budget. Florida House members reversed a July 1 pay hike to curb the Sunshine State’s red ink. South Carolina’s Democratic governor Jim Hodges slashed his salary by $4,000 to improve his state’s troubled finances.
Private citizens also have tightened their budgets, as so many lightly filled Christmas stockings illustrated just three weeks ago. The fact that America’s selfish Congress does precisely the opposite, while trampling the Constitution, is yet another reason to boot these featherbedders next November.