Cynical Pay Raises for Congress

Lobbyists for Common Cause, the citizens group, suffered from an uncommon pause of common sense when they stood outside the House of Representatives on December 14th urging the legislators to raise their own pay by $9138 a year. “Sycophantic”, declared an advocate for a citizen group opposing the salary hike. Another opponent argued that the present $60,662 a year salary plus ample fringe benefits and a $3000 annual housing allowance ought to constitute a living wage.

I was curious about Common Cause’s position. In the past it had worked to keep limitations on such outside income received by members of Congress for presentations before corporate conventions. It also fought the special congressional tax break which Congress reluctantly repealed earlier this year.

Why then was Common Cause at the same time working to increase the salaries of the Senators and Representatives? I found their reasons in a letter to the legislators by Common Cause President, Fred Wertheimer. It was inserted in the Congressional Record during the debate, alongside similar letters by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and the AFL-CIO.

After stating Common Cause’s “strong” support for pay increases for members of Congress, Mr. Wertheimer acknowledged the difficulty of the issue “because of the severe economic conditions in the country.” But, he added, “there never seems to be a right time for increasing congressional pay.” Could there be a worse time, though , than during a lame-duck session right after an election campaign of pious promises for prudent government. With dozens of defeated or retiring lame-ducks wanting to keep in their colleagues’ good graces for later contacts and lobbying, it is the worst, the most cynical time to hike their pay.

Mr. Wertheimer complains that since 1969, Congressional pay has risen 43 percent (from $42,500 to $60,662) while inflation has increased at a higher rate. He failed to note that in that same year, 1969, Congressional salaries were raised 42 percent from $30,000 to $42,500. He chose to start his calculations in 1969 with the higher salary level.

Common Cause also observed that Congressional salaries were far below the salaries of those in top level positions in major corporations and law firms. Bad analogy on many grounds, Mr. Wertheimer. Politics rules by example, not by money. Business rules by profits, not by deficits. If the politicians want to make big money, they should go into big business. They are in Congress to stay close to the people, share some of their pains and make a lot of justice.

Toward the end of his letter, Mr. Wertheimer does provide reassurance by noting that “There are clearly other rewards in congressional service that are not monetary in nature…” Let us fervently hope so. But he is mistaken when he writes that the majority of the Representatives live on their congressional salaries. Outside income, earned and unearned, inflicts itself regularly on most lawmakers,

Common Cause ends its letter by calling attention to the “temptation” to “reject any efforts at increasing congressional. salaries.” It need not have worried. By a vote of 303 to 109, the Representatives gave themselves the 15% pay raise. Calls from constituents began coming into their offices and the nervous politicians almost repealed the raise that same afternoon.

Almost but not quite. At this writing a clutch of Senators and Congressmen were meeting to figure out how they can raise their pay and also get rid of any limitation on how much outside income they can earn at corporate watering holes from Miami to Hawaii.

Congressman Harold L. Volkmer (D-Missouri) told his colleagues why he voted against the pay increase:

“I remind my colleagues” he said, “that our country is in a very serious depression, only surpassed by the Great Depression. Twelve million Americans are out of work, and heating costs are making millions of Americans, especially the poor and elderly face the decision of having adequate heat or adequate food. I cannot with good conscience even consider increasing the pay for Members of Congress with these problems facing my constituents. I am sure most of you have similar situations in your district,”

In the Great Depression, Congress cut its pay by $1000 in 1932 and another $500 in 1933, as an expression of concern for the plight of many Americans. Today’s Congress cannot even cut its shame.

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