While Nation Debated Immigration, House Gave Itself a Raise

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - As last week's battle over immigration reform focused the country's attention on the Senate, the members of the House of Representatives were also busy -- voting themselves a pay increase of $4,400.

Last Wednesday night, just hours before the Senate voted to kill a controversial comprehensive immigration reform bill, the House voted 244-181 to kill a measure that would have prevented a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 2.7 percent from going into effect when the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Democrats voted 145 to 83 in favor of allowing the COLA pay increases to go into effect. Republicans were virtually split, 99 to 98, in favor of the increases.

The timing of the House and Senate votes wasn't a coincidence, said Pete Sapp, vice president for communications of the National Taxpayers Union, on Monday. It also wasn't "the taxpayer's idea of bipartisan cooperation," he added.

"Unless you were watching C-SPAN that night, chances are the whole issue shot by you," Sapp told Cybercast News Service on Monday. "This was not unlike just about every other year in which Congress has confronted the question whether or not to accept a raise.

"So far in this decade, Congress's average inflation-adjusted pay level has hovered close to a postwar record," he stated. "When combined with a generous pension package and other perks, members are already compensated at an amount more than twice as high as median-income households in the Washington metropolitan area's affluent suburbs."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, Congress passed a law in 1989 in which legislators got an annual pay boost in exchange for giving up honoraria for personal gain.

The annual vote on the pay raise usually takes place in an obscure procedural move rather than a direct up-or-down vote, and the Democratic and GOP whips each deliver a roughly equal number of votes to shut off any move to block it.

But after Democrats' ads during the 2004 election criticizing the GOP for accepting pay increases while not boosting the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress prevented the COLA from taking effect during the current fiscal year.

When that happened, members of both parties "patted themselves on the back for being good stewards of tax dollars, but now, the back-patting is over with, and everyone wants to run for the dark corners," Sapp said.

"Of course, the reasons the Democrats gave for freezing their pay this year were not only that they wanted to make a gesture of sacrifice, but also that they also would not accept a pay raise themselves until the minimum wage had gone up," he said.

In late May, Congress approved a boost in the minimum wage over two years from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 an hour. To avoid a presidential veto, the bill contained $4.84 billion in small business tax breaks over 10 years.

But on Monday, Sapp remained unimpressed, and pointed to the poor approval ratings for Congress, apparent in recent polls.

Last month, Gallup reported that Americans' confidence in Congress had dropped to an all-time low of 14 percent.

"I don't think it's going to move their approval ratings up very far to say [that] they did without several thousand dollars for a few months," he said.

One of the House members who voted against the COLA increase was Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who released a statement last week asserting that the pay raise was "inappropriate at this time."

"These are difficult times facing our country," he said. "We are fighting terrorism on so many fronts, our economy faces challenges, and our future budget deficits are projected to be at massive levels for years.

"I am not saying we should never receive a salary increase," Matheson continued. "I am saying that this is not the time for Congress to allow a pay raise to go through without even an up-or-down vote. We need to budget and live within our means."

Democrat Rep. John Hall of New York, who also voted against the increase, said that because the increase cannot be excluded from a congressman's paycheck, he would donate the money to charity.

Another who voted against the increase was Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio, who said in a statement "the American people don't believe that Congress deserves a raise."

"People are even more repulsed by the notion of Congress receiving an automatic pay increase - without an up-or-down vote - especially when so many families must live on the same income as last year," Jordan said.

House Minority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) took a different view of the COLA increase last week.

"Every member has some obligation to the institution for the compensation to, as much as possible, keep pace with inflation," Blunt told reporters. "I think this should be as good of a job when I leave it as it was when I took it.''

Nevertheless, Daniel Gilbert, a North Carolina businessman who last March filed papers to enter the race for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, said in a news release on Monday he believes members of Congress are "career politicians to spend like drunken sailors, pander for illegal alien votes and continue to ignore those who have put them in power in the first place."

"If they cannot be fired in the next election, they most certainly don't deserve a pay raise -- they deserve a pay cut," he added.

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