WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have at least one reason to ring in the new year: They've given themselves a $4,700-a-year pay raise starting Thursday.
With the economy in a recession and millions of Americans losing their jobs, however, members are under fire to rescind the pay hike, which will increase their base salaries to $174,000, roughly a 2.8 percent raise.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California will get a larger raise of about $6,100, though it's about the same percent increase. Her salary will rise to nearly $223,500. Pelosi's office declined to comment on the raise.
When Congress begins a new session next Tuesday, critics have an idea for the very first vote: Block the 2009 raise for all 535 senators and representatives.
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"Certainly, the timing could be a lot better. . . . When you look at the rest of the country, people are hoping to hang on to their jobs, much less get a salary increase or a bonus," said Steve Ellis, the vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Other critics say that Congress has done nothing to deserve a raise.
"The general public can't help but think that lawmakers are patting themselves on the back, and padding their wallets, for presiding over the worst fiscal-policy blunders in recent history," said Pete Sepp, the vice president for policy and communications for the National Taxpayers Union.
The issue is always sensitive for members of Congress, who've designed a way to raise their pay automatically without even having to vote. They call it a cost-of-living allowance that takes effect each year, unless members vote to turn it down. Conveniently, it allows them to leave no evidence that could be used against incumbents in re-election campaigns.
"It's a gimmick to essentially avoid something that would be politically dicey," Ellis said. "And both parties are complicit in this system and benefit from it."
Members of Congress don't often snub an opportunity to make more money. It happened most recently in 2007, when the Democratic-led Congress decided to forgo a raise because it hadn't approved an increase in the minimum wage. Last January, members received an automatic increase of 2.5 percent.
Ellis said that Congress would be wise to delay its 2009 raise until the recession ended or unemployment declined. That would show that public officials are making a "shared sacrifice" during times of economic difficulty, he said.
While members of Congress will receive a raise, 12 percent of seniors are living at or below the poverty line, said Daniel O'Connell, the chairman of The Senior Citizens League. A senior who receives average Social Security benefits will get a $63 monthly increase in 2009, he said.
The congressional pay raise is expected to cost taxpayers $2.5 million next year.
"This money would be much better spent helping the millions of seniors who are living below the poverty line and struggling to keep their heat on this winter," O'Connell said.
He said that members of Congress were increasing their salaries after questioning the multimillion-dollar compensation of auto executives earlier this month.
"As lawmakers make a big show of forcing auto executives to accept just $1 a year in salary, they are quietly raiding the vault for their own personal gain," O'Connell said.
Four members of Congress from Indiana have announced that they won't accept the pay increase: Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, Republican Reps. Mike Pence and Dan Burton and Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth.
In Florida, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez and Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Ginny Brown-Waite said they'd vote to block the raise if congressional leaders allowed a vote. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she wanted nothing to do with the raise. Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, intends to donate her raise to charity, spokesman Phil LaVelle said Tuesday.
Finding anyone brave enough to defend the pay hike in Washington these days is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. When they're asked to comment, usually accessible members quickly go missing, are on vacation, are extremely busy with family members or can't be reached on their cell phones because they're in remote locations. Some congressional aides, however, speaking privately, said they wouldn't be surprised if public pressure forced Congress to revisit the issue when members returned to work next week.
Sepp called the latest raise "sadly, not surprising" and said it was indicative of a Congress that was out of touch with voters.
"If 9-11, the resulting economic slowdown and wars couldn't deter these folks from taking a pay grab, how could the current recession shame them into doing the right thing?" Sepp asked. "Salaries for senators and representatives are about the only federal expenditure that average Americans can directly relate to, and yet lawmakers can't grasp why people get so upset over such a relatively small amount of money in the federal budget."
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