WASHINGTON – When Democrats blasted Republicans last fall for taking annual congressional pay raises while blocking numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage, it was an effective campaign tactic. Democrats vowed not to accept the annual cost-of-living hike until Congress increases the minimum wage.
But Republicans angered over the political attacks are unwilling to allow Democrats to reinstate the so-called members' COLA, forcing Democratic leaders to scuttle the 1.7 percent pay hike for the entire year.
"There will be no COLA adjustment," said a disappointed Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House's No. 2 Democrat, on Tuesday.
Hoyer has for years played a central role in finessing the ticklish issue of lawmakers' pay, working cozily with GOP leaders to make sure an annual pay-related vote went smoothly.
Lawmakers' pay will be frozen at $165,200 for this year in the dispute, in which Democrats violated a yearslong understanding that the competing parties would not use the pay raise issue in campaign ads.
Under the annual COLA, lawmakers automatically get a pay hike unless Congress votes to block it. Hoyer and GOP leaders such as Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., made sure to smooth over any potential obstacles to the pay hike.
Typically, the annual vote on the pay hike came on an obscure procedural move — instead of a direct up-or-down vote — and the Democratic and GOP whips each delivered a roughly equal number of votes to shut off any move to block the pay hike.
Blunt said Democrats broke the agreement last year after the pay raise-related vote had already taken place. In a 263-152 vote in June, the House blocked a bid by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, to force an up-or-down vote on the pay raise.
"The agreement always was that the parties would not use the COLA issue in the campaign," Blunt said. "It was as formal as anything not signed is."
Under the congressional pay raise law enacted in 1989, lawmakers won a big pay raise in exchange for giving up honoraria for personal gain. The COLA was born as part of the reforms, but it also had the political benefit of freeing lawmakers from having to vote on pay hikes.
The issue is ripe because a GOP-drafted stopgap spending bill carrying language delaying the pay hike expires Feb. 15 — and lawmakers would automatically start receiving their raises the following day.
A huge spending bill for the current budget year is moving through the House on Wednesday, and Democrats tried in recent days to reach agreement with Republicans on language to delay the pay raise a few more weeks or months to provide more time for the minimum wage bill to advance into law.
Republicans said no.
"The DCCC ran their own ads attacking (GOP) members on this," Blunt said. "Because of that their members are going to suffer in terms of not being able to have a COLA."
Members were originally due to begin receiving a 1.7 percent, or $2,800, annual increase Jan. 1. They had already lost about $320 with the delay to Feb. 16.
Senate GOP Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., pressed for congressional pay hikes since his days as a member of the House Republican leadership. Lott expressed disappointment at the news, noting there's no shortage of wealthy lawmakers — such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Edward Kennedy — using the pay raise issue as a political sword.
"It's very easy for the multimillionaires ... to demagogue this issue," Lott said.