Chambers Split Over COLAs

Posted October 18, 2005 at 6:59pm

In a near-unanimous vote, Senators agreed Tuesday to forgo their annual pay hike for the coming year, setting up a potential confrontation with House lawmakers who sidelined a similar measure earlier this year.

The Senate-passed measure — authored by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) as an amendment to the fiscal 2006 Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Judiciary and District of Columbia spending bill — passed 92-6 and drew broad support as a sign that Senators were ready to offset spending for relief efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as for the on-going conflict in Iraq.

“It is true that the $2 million that this saves is hardly noticeable. … It is symbolic, and I recognize that, but sometimes symbolism is important,” Kyl said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “At least we have the ability to say, ‘Well, we all have to make a little sacrifice.’ The Members of Congress are also willing to make a sacrifice.”

Many Senators echoed Kyl’s arguments, such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a co-sponsor of the amendment who said, “There are big concerns about federal spending. This is a modest but important step.”

But some suggested that outside factors also played a role in the Senate’s actions.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that a series of government blunders, such as the mismanaged handling of Katrina and Rita and the subsequent “spiraling gas prices,” made the COLA a candidate for spending reductions.

The Nevada lawmaker also asserted that the “ongoing cronyism and corruption” in Washington, D.C. — a central theme Democrats are using to bludgeon Republicans at the moment — made it important for Congress to not take a pay raise this year.

“That debate can come for another year,” Reid said of the COLA. “This is not the year.”

Under a federal law enacted in 1989, Members of Congress automatically receive an annual pay increase unless legislation is passed to block the COLA from being implemented. The increase is based on the most recent full-year Employment Cost Index, minus .5 percent.

If no pay freeze were to be enacted, Members would receive an additional $3,100 beginning next January, bringing pay for rank-and-file lawmakers to $165,200 from the current $162,100. Members of the elected leadership are paid slightly more.

Congressional lawmakers blocked themselves from receiving a pay raise from 1993 until 1997 but since then have accepted the annual raises.

While opponents to the COLA, including Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), annually seek to circumvent the pay increase, either through stand-alone bills or an amendment to the Transportation spending bill, the Senate last voted on the matter in 2003, when it tabled the amendment.

Feingold, who lambasted the annual increases as “stealth pay raises” Tuesday on the Senate floor, later credited the combination of the recent natural disasters, along with the ongoing conflict in Iraq, for the Senate’s landslide vote.

“It’s pretty outrageous for Members of Congress to think of giving themselves a raise,” Feingold said. He asserted that any Member who would vote against a freeze would need to be “very confident feeling about their political position.”

National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp sounded a similar note.

“We need to remember that some of the worst public fallout over the middle-of-the-night pay grabs in the early- and middle-1990s was occurring against a backdrop of other ethical accusations,” Sepp said. “The two issues can feed off each other and create some major political headaches.

“House Members and Senate Members could prevent a simmering situation from boiling over,” he added.

Unlike the Senate legislation, however, the House version of the Transportation spending bill, which was approved earlier this year, does not include a provision on Member pay, setting up a likely confrontation during conference committee on the bill.

“It’s an issue that will have to be resolved by the conferees,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield, noting the issue is only one of many in the legislation.

Although Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) had sought to block the pay raise during House debate on the Transportation spending bill, he was prevented from doing so by a procedural motion, and House Members were not required to make an up-or-down vote on the COLA.

In an interview Tuesday, Matheson, who has sought to force a vote on the issue for five years, praised the Senate action and said he hopes that his House colleagues will follow suit. The Utah lawmaker issued a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) echoing those sentiments and urging preservation of the Senate amendment.

“There’s been a growing base of support in the House for this,” Matheson said. But he acknowledged, “It’s still an uphill battle.”

It remained unclear Tuesday whether the House GOP leadership would back the Senate amendment or seek to remove it from the final bill. But conservative Republicans are expected to support the measure.

“Budget cuts begin at home, even here on Capitol Hill,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who chairs the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee. The group had included a similar proposal in a wide-ranging plan to cut federal spending it unveiled in September.

“It’s important that Congress lead by example, and put our own budgets on the chopping block,” he added.

The Indiana lawmaker suggested that in addition to the spending bill, the salary freeze could be attached to numerous other pieces of legislation, such as a budget reconciliation measure. “There would be ample opportunity to include the Senate action in a House measure,” Pence said.

Still, the Senate action did draw the ire of at least one lawmaker Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is a longtime defender of the COLA.

“It’s not the cost. It’s the symbolism,” Hoyer said. “It’s posturing, in my opinion.”

The six Senate lawmakers who voted against the measure expressed similar sentiments. The six no votes were cast by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).

Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) did not vote.

Jeffords, a spokeswoman said, “sees this as a feel-good measure that does virtually nothing to decrease the deficit.”

But NTU’s Sepp criticized those characterizations, arguing that “it may represent posturing to some, but one person’s posturing is another person’s symbolic leadership.”

In the meantime, two Senate Republicans have suggested separate proposals that would take the Senate amendment one step further.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who supports the COLA and argues that it is necessary to attract qualified candidates to Congress, said he is working on legislation that would bar Members who vote against a pay increase from receiving it.

The Oklahoma Republican, who had sought to amend Kyl’s legislation, said he hopes to find another bill to attach the language to before the next pay cycle begins.

“I’m actually going to vote for this. Normally I vote the other way,” Inhofe said of the Kyl amendment.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called Tuesday for the permanent repeal of the COLA pending a balanced federal budget.

“Congress should not receive another pay increase until Members have balanced the budget,” Coburn said in a statement. “It is unacceptable for Congress to give itself a pay raise when members have been unable to perform the duties they were elected to do, which include balancing the budget.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.