Editorial: The Pay Freeze

Posted March 10, 2009 at 6:19pm

In years past, we have supported Members’ automatic cost-of-living adjustment, which is written into one of the annual appropriations bills, and in normal times we would argue that Senators and Representatives should get a raise, even if it is only 2 percent. But these are not normal times.

With businesses across the country freezing pay — if not eliminating jobs — it is wholly appropriate that Congress does the same for fiscal 2009. By freezing their salaries at $174,000, Members are not going to fix the deficit or drag us out of the recession. But the gesture demonstrates, at least, an understanding among lawmakers that they must deal with the same difficulties faced by their constituents.

But Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter’s attempt to permanently end the automatic COLAs went too far, injecting politics where it does not belong.

In 1989, Congress established the COLA as a permanent, annual element in the budget and appropriations process, one that can be canceled only through other legislation. Members had become frustrated by the politicization of the COLA as challengers would attack incumbents for voting themselves a pay raise, regardless of the merits of the increase. (Although, it must be pointed out, similar accusations have continued even under the current system, and as recently as the 2006 elections.)

The “revolving door— connecting Congress and K Street is often characterized as a negative aspect of our political process. But in order to stop the door from spinning, public servants need to be enticed to stay while other people (those without significant personal wealth) must be encouraged to run. No one is saying lawmakers should be paid millions, but as the cost of living rises year by year, even Members of Congress can have difficulty keeping pace.

Those who live outside the Washington, D.C., area must maintain two homes in order to remain connected to their districts and perform their duties on Capitol Hill. And while $174,000 is nothing to sneeze at, we believe most people would be stretched trying to raise a family and maintain two homes on that income.

As Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein pointed out in Emily Yehle’s article on Tuesday, if the rules are changed and lawmakers are forced to vote on whether to give themselves raises (as opposed to the current system, in which they could vote not to give themselves an increase), Congress will likely go years without a COLA because Members will be too afraid of the potential backlash.

Then we will once again be stuck with an underpaid legislative branch until lawmakers realize they have fallen so far behind that they have no choice but to vote for a significant raise in order to catch up. And then the recriminations would be even worse.