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When Senate Democrats vowed last month to block the Congressional pay raise until lawmakers increase the minimum wage, they were hitting on an issue that has resonated with voters since the adoption of the Constitution.
History shows Americans have rarely been fond of Congressional pay increases and over the past 200 years have shown themselves more than willing to toss out politicians who vote to boost their own salaries.
“It’s always been a hot issue,” said Deputy House Historian Fred Beuttler, ever since a constitutional vagary left Congress with the difficult job of determining the salaries of its own Members way back in 1789.
In their first meeting, lawmakers put aside debates on the Bill of Rights and the permanent location of the federal government to argue about their own wages.
Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Morris (Pro-Administration) called for Senators to be paid more than Representatives. His logic: Senators, whom he considered to be the older and more distinguished statesmen, should not have to live in substandard boarding houses and fraternize with “improper company” — depredations he believed the younger and greener Representatives could handle.
Faced with strong House opposition, Morris’ proposal was defeated, and both chambers agreed on an equal payment of $6 per day.
“The House decided right away that that was not the way to go,” said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
Congress learned its first lesson about the political dangers of raising wages in 1816, when lawmakers voted to switch from a per diem system to an annual salary of $1,500 — markedly higher than what they had been receiving under the original system. Some Members argued that a per diem encouraged Congress to prolong its sessions to increase pay.
“The accusation was that they were staying in Congress longer to make sure they were paid more,” Ritchie said. “But if you don’t put up a salary, how are you going to get by? Do you want a salary where only the wealthy survive?”
But angry Georgians had little patience for sob stories about their Representatives’ pay. Upon hearing about the pay increase, they constructed effigies of their Senators and conducted a public hanging of the figures. Clearly, the pay increase would not resonate at home. In the next election, about two-thirds of the Members of the “salary grab” Congress were ousted from office, and the old pay system was restored promptly.
“It was an enormous electoral defeat,” Beuttler said.
But even the per diem salary, now at $8 a day, continued to irritate citizens across the country. In 1845 — when Congressional salaries were about 18 times as high as per capita gross domestic product — the popular singing Hutchinson family composed a little ditty about their Representatives’ lucrative seats.
“At Washington, full once a year do politicians throng, Contriving there by various arts to make their sessions long,” went the tune, which was discovered by The Washington Post in 1991. “And many a reason do they give why they’re obliged to stay, But the clearest reason yet adduced is eight dollars a day.”
In 1856, Congress finally agreed to an annual salary of $3,000, which was about 20 times higher than per capita GDP, according to statistics compiled by historians Louis Johnston and Samuel Williamson.
Perhaps because the change raised few eyebrows, Congress raised its pay again in 1866 and 1873.