Congress last had a pay cut in April 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression.
A bill to end that 77-year-long era, H.R. 4720, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers was introduced in the House of Representatives in March.
If the bill becomes law, salaries for all senators and representatives would be cut by 5 percent, which would save $4.7 million, and block automatic increases in congressional salaries for 2011.
“The American people have had enough of Washington politicians refusing to live up to their responsibilities,” said Rep. Kirkpatrick. “If elected officials are going to say that this country is facing its most difficult economic times in generations, then they need to act like it.”
Of the bill’s 29 co-sponsors, six are from the Rocky Mountain West:
Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ; Cynthia Lummis, R-WY; Betsy Markey, D-CO; Walt Minnick, D- ID; Jared Polis, D-CO; and Harry Teague, D-NM. At publication time, only Lummis, Minnick and Simpson had responded to our calls for comment. Simpson’s spokesperson, Nikki Watts, told NewWest.Net that Simpson intends to support and vote for the bill. Denny Rehberg, D-MT, who is not a sponsor, was also contacted, but has not responded to the question of whether or not he’d vote for the bill.
UPDATE: After publication of this article, Rehberg sent his statement to NewWest.Net: “As a rancher, my pay is tied directly to my bottom line. It shouldn’t be any different in government. The federal government is running huge deficits and we need to cut spending across the board and that includes cutting congressional pay.” Pressed to say directly whether or not he would vote for H.R. 4720, Rehberg’s office declined further comment.
Minnick said Wednesday that “Idahoans have had to cutback and live with tighter budgets and it is high time that politicians in Washington, D.C., share some of that sacrifice. This cut in pay is a small step Congress can take to get serious about lowering our nation’s national debt and to stop putting spending on the credit card.”
According to 2008, inflation-adjusted statistics from the U.S. Census – the most recent numbers available – median income levels for a family of four, rounded to the nearest thousand dollars, are: Arizona, 69K; Colorado, 82K; Idaho, 62K; Montana, 66K; Nevada, 71K; Utah, 70K; and Wyoming, 77K. The national median income was 63K. These statistics are salaries only and do not include benefits.
A rank-and-file member of the House or Senate makes $174K a year, also not including benefits. That’s nearly three times the median income in Idaho, the poorest Rocky Mountain state, and a bit short of twice that of Colorado’s, the richest.
Little more than a week ago, Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would have extended unemployment benefits for more than 1 million Americans; 1.2 million reached the limit of their benefits by the end of June, according to the National Employment Law Project.
And state Departments of Labor are estimating that tens of thousands of citizens will exhaust their jobless benefits in the next three months, in addition to the tens of thousands who came to the end of theirs in the past three.
At a time when Americans are struggling to hold onto their jobs and their homes, those comparisons are galling to the many who think Congress has presided over the worst fiscal blunders in history. Add that to public perception that corporate executives are also overpaid–both in sheer numbers and relative to average employees — and voter anger steams even hotter. Finally, pile on the public fury over how Congress has enabled corporations to go bankrupt while bailing them out with taxpayer money, and the public mood for cutting lawmakers’ pay is powerful.
In the private sector, measurements of how much people should earn use criteria that may be tied to company profit, job performance, what other companies pay for similar positions – a practice designed to attract and keep the best employees – and/or other personal or financial indicators. Pay for some jobs, such as sales, are directly tied to day-to-day performance.
But which criteria could be used to set congressional salaries? Who defines a “successful” Congress? If your representative voted and worked exactly as you would like but was unable to pass a single bill because of too much opposition, is she a “failure” when compared to a representative who passes every bill he sponsors, even if you disagree with all of them?
To put it another way, as Marc Johnson, president of Gallatin Public Affairs in Boise, did: “It’s often said, ‘government needs to run like a business,’ but in fact, it is not a business and many accepted standards of performance and compensation in business just don’t apply to government.”
“For one thing,” said Johnson, “you would have to have a compensation system that rewarded based on some measure of value and performance. Is a freshman congressman who barely knows his way around Capitol Hill as ‘valuable’ to the republic as the late Sen. Robert Byrd with all his experience, knowledge and accomplishment? I’d say no, but you’d have a hard time paying the freshman different than the senior senator.”
To pay members of Congress using the metrics for success used by private companies would require a set of micro-subjective criteria that couldn’t possibly be fair. There are as many variables as there are voters: Phil the lawyer’s criteria will differ from Marsha the CEO’s criteria and Natalie the teacher’s criteria.
And since an individual member of Congress has a limited amount of influence over legislation, and there are thousands of reasons beyond the control of one member that determine the economic health of the country, the use of performance-based salary levels isn’t practical.
The Employment Cost Index is used to set congressional cost-of-living adjustments, but not base pay. Adjustments are calculated using a formula based on changes in private-sector wages and salaries. Since 1990, Congress has accepted a raise 13 times and denied itself a raise seven times.
But how many Americans work for a company with automatic – or any – cost of living adjustments? Government retirees and people who receive Social Security haven’t seen regular COLAs lately, or the increases were smaller than expected.
COLAs for Congress are automatic unless lawmakers step in to stop them. Kirkpatrick’s bill would take care of 2011, but after that, unless another landmark bill comes along, it’s business as usual.