WASHINGTON – Amid the debate over how to fund the hurricane recovery effort along the Gulf Coast (search), a few lawmakers are suggesting that they forgo their pay raises for a few years.
Fiscal conservatives in both the House and Senate have included a pay freeze as part of proposals in response to a federal deficit expected to reach about $330 billion this year and then heading skyward as the costs of rebuilding after hurricanes Katrina and Rita come in.
"Average Americans in all 50 states are reaching into their pocketbooks and investing in relief and recovery efforts," said Rep. Mike Pence (search), R-Ind., a leader of House conservatives. "The power and symbol of members of Congress doing that, regardless of the size of the contribution, could be very important."
The savings, $14 million over 10 years in the House proposal, are minuscule compared to some other ideas, such as putting off the Medicare prescription drug benefit for a year at savings of $30 billion, but it may be just as politically unpalatable.
Republicans froze salaries for a few years after gaining the majority in 1995, but in seven of the past eight years they have joined Democrats in approving cost-of-living increases, usually with little or no debate.
This year only one House member, Democrat Jim Matheson (search) of Utah, spoke out against the 1.9 percent COLA that lawmakers will automatically receive with passage of the annual spending bill that covers federal workers. That would boost the salary for rank-and-file members by $3,100 to $165,200.
"Now more than ever it's not the time for Congress to be raising its pay," Matheson said in an interview Monday. "I've been kind of a lonely voice on this issue the last couple years," he said, welcoming the inclusion of the pay freeze in a savings package put forth by GOP conservatives last week.
In the Senate, Sen. Tom Coburn (search), R-Okla., and other conservatives are seeking to incorporate their savings ideas, including the pay freeze, into a tax and spending bill that Congress may take up before the end of the year.
"Charity requires sacrifice, and members of Congress could set a good example of charity by giving up their pay increase," Coburn and others said in proposing the freeze.