COLA for Members Will Fizz Out

Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:28pm

Congress is unlikely to give itself a pay raise this year, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled Tuesday.

The Employment Cost Index, which dictates whether federal lawmakers receive their usual cost-of-living adjustment, “may show that employees in the private sector unfortunately did not move forward,” Hoyer said. “Under those circumstances, the law specifically says that we don’t move forward. So the law may take care of itself.”

Hoyer said he is “not happy” that most workers — public and private — are looking at no increases in the coming year and added that Congress will “cross that bridge when we come to it.” He was quick to point out that lawmakers don’t receive pay raises but COLAs.

Talk of freezing Congressional pay comes on the heels of President Barack Obama announcing his plan to freeze the salaries of about 120 administration staffers who earn more than $100,000 a year. The move is estimated to save about $443,000 next year.

“During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington,” Obama said at a news conference last week.

In the name of government cost-cutting, three lawmakers — Reps. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) — have introduced bills to prevent pay raises for Members of Congress. Sestak and Burton are looking to stop pay increases in 2010, while Latta wants to block “automatic pay adjustments” for lawmakers.

Burton co-sponsored similar legislation during the 109th Congress, and at the time he said he returned his cost-of-living increase to the Treasury Department. “We ought to lead by example,” he said. “Not that we’re paragons of virtue.”

House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) agreed that tough economic times mean public officials should sacrifice, too: “I think we should forgo [pay raises] this year.”

Still, Burton said he recognized that many Members “aren’t getting rich around here” and can’t afford to support his bill.

“We probably have 30 to 40 Members who sleep in their offices,” Burton said. “I know guys who have inflatable beds. They literally sleep in their offices. They shave and shower at the gym. This is not baloney.”

Burton said he was recently talking to one Member who told him that, between the high cost of living in Washington, D.C., and then paying for his house and family out West, he is spending $2,000 more per month than he is earning.

“I’m not going to say to him, ‘Hey, co-sponsor my bill. Let me help you blow up your air mattress,’” Burton said.

Burton acknowledged that he is fortunate to have made investments that keep him financially comfortable, which means he can afford to go without cost-of-living increases. But even Members who don’t make a lot of money have supported the issue of freezing their pay.

Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) said he has opposed pay increases for lawmakers since he came to Congress, and he is “not a well-to-do. I’m just a poor farmer from Colorado.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said he would wait until the issue surfaces on the floor before deciding how he would vote.

“Politically, there are those trying to set an example” by waiving cost-of-living increases, Hastings said. “I should add that people doing so are among those who are very rich.”

In the Senate, the issue of whether to freeze lawmakers’ pay “hasn’t been on anyone’s radar” given the steady focus on stabilizing the economy, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced legislation this week to freeze Congressional pay in 2011, but he remains the lone Senator to take on the issue.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she has been “too busy with the recovery package” to deal with much else, particularly since her home state leads the nation in unemployment.

It is possible that a measure to freeze pay increases could be tacked onto the omnibus spending bill set for passage after the stimulus package clears, but Senators are not in a hurry to take up the issue, according to one Senate Democratic leadership aide.