Senate salary increase faces criticism

Posted 8:51 p.m. Sept. 18

by Rati Bishnoi
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Amid a fledgling economic climate where tales of bankruptcy scandals unfold as quickly as small town gossip and the unemployment rate rises to new heights, not everyone faces an uncertain financial future; at least not in the nation’s capital.

As par a yearly mandate, the U.S. Congress has approved a $5,000 pay raise for all senators to be effective next year. The salary increase, which is also known as a Cost-of-Living Adjustment, will increase salaries of representatives by 3.3 percent to $154,700 from $150,000.

This annual COLA marks the seventh increase in congressional salaries since 1989.In 1989, Congress enacted the Ethics Act which replaced a roll call vote method to increase salaries with an annual incremental COLA determined by the Employment Cost Index. Since then, Congress has approved over $60,000 in raises for itself.

These annual COLAs have faced opposition over the years — and this latest increase isn’t any different.

A coalition of nine conservative, libertarian and liberal interest groups headed by Ralph Nader sent letters to the Senate in August asking them to reject the mandated increase. The letter chided senators for giving themselves raises on top of “very generous pensions, health and life insurance, housing deductions and assorted perks.” It also urged senators to change the procedure for increasing legislators’ pay by reverting to the standards of the sixties and seventies when congressional committees would hold public hearings and conduct public floor debates on the subject.

Nader has named the upcoming increase, “Congress’ annual stealth pay raise maneuver.”

A nominal number of senators have also joined in opposing the mandated increase. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., a strong supporter of this year’s campaign finance reform bill, is leading an effort to oppose the mandated pay increase which will be effective Jan. 1, 2003.

Feingold, who has likened the automatic salary increase to “a form of cooking the books,” will have to successfully offer an amendment to block the Treasury Postal Appropriations measure to which the mandate is attached. The maneuver is one that Feingold has tried and failed to accomplish in the past.

Feingold is not the only member of the government opposing the pay raise.

“Since this session of Congress began, the Dow has lost fifteen percent of its value,” Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said in a recent statement.”The NASDAQ has lost almost a third of its value. Unemployment is up, profits are down, retirement accounts are down, people are hurting and we, in this Congress, should not be raising our pay.”

Another opponent of the increase is Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C. Hayes recently told the Washington Post that he would be donating his 3.3 percent COLA increase to charity.

Advocates of the COLA, such as House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, are blaming inflation and lost income from outside speaking engagements legislators agreed to in exchange for the yearly increase as a defense against critics. In a recent interview with Meet the Press’ Tim Russert, Armey said, “What Congress did was not vote away their diminished cost-of-living increase, that is a half a percentage point below that which is given to every other federal employee. We just simply did not deny ourselves that normal increase in our cost of living that every other worker in America not only expects, but insists upon.”

Armey continued, saying “We have a cost-of-living increase for members of Congress that’s half a percentage point less that what anybody else in the government gets.”

The 3.3 percentage increase is slightly less than the projected pay increase of 4 percent for all federal employees that is planned for 2003 according to the Total Salary Increase Budget Survey from WorldatWork and the 2002/2003 U.S. Compensation Planning Survey from Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

The reports site a rebound in pay increases, but projects fewer raise recipients in the coming year.

When asked about the defense used by Armey that equated congressmen to other federal employees, Gary Ruskin, the director of the Congressional Accountability Project said, “These are whopping raises. They don’t need these raises. Over the five years members of Congress have given themselves $13,000 per year in raises, which is more than a minimum wage employee would earn during an entire year of full-time work.”

Along with members of Congress, 3,300 other federal employees such as judges and senior government executives would also receive identical percentage increases in their annual salary.

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