Congressional Members Begin Pay Raise Dance

The House on Thursday agreed to a 2.2 percent pay raise for Congress — slightly less than average wage increases in private business but enough to boost lawmakers' annual salaries to about $158,000 next year.

The House members decided to allow themselves a fifth straight cost-of-living raise after rejecting them for several years during the 1990s. Their annual pay has risen from $136,700 in 1999 to about $158,000 in 2004, if the legislation clears Congress and is signed by the president. Their salary this year is $154,700.

As in past years, the congressional COLA was automatically included as part of pay increases that all federal civilian and military employees will receive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (search), wages among all nongovernment workers rose an average 2.7 percent from July 2002 through June 2003.

Both the House and Senate, ignoring a White House recommendation that civilian pay raises be held down next year, have decided on 4.1 percent raises for almost all federal workers.

The pay increases are part of an $89.3 billion spending bill for the 2004 budget year for Transportation and Treasury Department programs. A vote on the spending bill was expected late Thursday. The spending bill has yet to reach the Senate floor.

Only one House member — Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah — voiced objections to the congressional increase during the debate.

"We are fighting terrorism on numerous fronts and our economy is in serious trouble, unemployment is at record high levels and our future budget deficits are predicted to be the highest in the history of this great nation," Matheson said. "Now is not the time for members of Congress to be voting themselves a pay raise."

By a 240-173 vote, the House rejected Matheson's procedural attempt to get a direct vote on the pay raise for lawmakers. In 1989, Congress voted to make cost-of-living pay increases for themselves automatic unless they voted otherwise.

Without counting outside sources of income, the earnings of members of Congress rank within the top 5 percent of the nation.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen (search), said lawmakers, as high-income earners, were already benefiting substantially from the administration-backed tax cuts that have been enacted. She said that while she didn't necessarily oppose cost-of-living increases for members of Congress, "I do think that to give tax breaks to the rich while giving themselves a pay raise is unfair."

The 2.2 percent increase — calculated through a formula — would also apply to the vice president, congressional leaders and Supreme Court justices. This year, Vice President Cheney, top leaders in the House and Senate and the chief justice receive $198,600. Associate justices of the Supreme Court get $190,100 and the House majority and minority leaders receive $171,900.

President Bush's $400,000 salary is unaffected by the legislation.

Lawmakers' salaries were frozen at $133,600 from 1993 to 1997, stood at $136,700 the next two years and have risen annually since then.

The 4.1 percent raise for military personnel and more than 1 million civilian workers more than doubles the 2 percent recommended by President Bush, who cited the costs of the war on terrorism last month in seeking a lower rate. Members of Congress, who have the final say unless Bush vetoes the legislation, have long argued that there should be parity between military and civilian pay raises.

The White House, in a statement, said the proposed 4.1 percent increase exceeds the president's request by $2.1 billion, exceeds the inflation rate "and even exceeds the average increase in private-sector pay."

It also said the administration was "extremely disappointed" that the bill does not fund Bush's request for a $500 million fund to target pay raises to employees demonstrating high performance.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, whose Maryland district includes many federal workers, opposed the president's proposal, saying that "his decision to invoke a national emergency to provide an inadequate pay raise for the very men and women who are confronting that emergency on a daily basis smacks of indifference."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who has contested congressional pay raises in the past, intends to oppose it again when it reaches the Senate floor, his office said.