Published December 20, 2008
As Americans across the country grapple with one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, members of Congress quietly are getting a pay raise.
Each lawmaker's annual salary is due for a $4,700 cost-of-living increase starting in January, which will amount to a cost to taxpayers of $2.5 million in 2009, infuriating watchdog groups.
"Members of Congress don't deserve one additional dime of taxpayer money in 2009," said Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste.
"While thousands of Americans are facing layoffs and downsizing, Congress should be mortified to accept a raise," he said in a written statement.
Members of Congress make an average of $169,300 a year, with Congressional leaders making slightly more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cailf., makes $217,400, while the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate each make $188,100.
The raise will increase the average salary to about $174,000, up 2.8 percent.
Pelosi's and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's offices did not respond to FOXNews.com's requests for comment.
Pay raises for public officials, whether at the federal, state or local level, usually spark outrage among taxpayer advocates. But the deepening financial crisis has led even a few lawmakers to object.
Earlier this year, Rep. Harry Mitchell, a first-term Democrat from Arizona, introduced legislation that would have stopped the automatic pay adjustments from kicking in for members next year. But the bill, which drew 34 cosponsors, died in committee.
Two other members of Congress, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind, and Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-SC, also tried to block the wages but didn't get very far. Burton plans to return his pay increase to the Treasury Department.
"As we face the most challenging economic crisis in our history, and with many Americans and Hoosiers enduring personal financial hardships, I am opposed to any pay increase for members of Congress in 2009," he said in a written statement. He said he'll try again next year.
Lawmakers have received automatic raises since 1989. As part of an ethics bill, Congress gave up its ability to accept pay for speeches and made annual cost-of-living pay increases automatic unless lawmakers voted otherwise.
Lawmakers have rejected pay raises six times since then, most recently last year, when Democrats, newly elected to the majority, had vowed to block an increase in their paychecks until Congress raised the minimum wage.
For the past eight years, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has been trying to end the automatic salary hike for House members, arguing that spending priorities in a time of war and economic crisis do not include pay raises for lawmakers.
Matheson wants to put the automatic pay raises to a vote.
"At a time when people are losing their jobs, their homes and their retirement, I think the least we could do is openly debate whether we should take the pay increase this year or do some belt-tightening," he said in a written statement.
As he has done for the past eight years, Matheson plans to donate his pay raise to charity, his spokeswoman said.
The Senior Citizens League asserted the pay raise would rank each lawmaker in the top six percent of American households.
"As lawmakers make a big show of forcing auto executives to accept just $1 a year in salary, they are quietly raiding the vault for their own personal gain," the group's chairman, Daniel O'Connell, said in a written statement. "This money would be much better spent helping the millions of seniors who are living below the poverty line and struggling to keep their heat on this winter."
The group estimates that a senior receiving average benefits will get a $63 monthly increase to just $1,153 per month next year, increasing their annual total to $13,836.
The pay raises come as the economic recession deepens. The economy lost 533,000 jobs in November, bringing the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent.