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Congressional Pay Raise Scam

by Ralph Nader

There are times when comparisons matter a lot. Just compare Congress and its self-voted forthcoming salary increase from $150,000 to $155,000 a year with the federal minimum of $5.15 per hour that Congress has frozen for years.

Since 1989, members of Congress have granted themselves a total of $60,500 in raises. This is much more than keeping up with inflation, in addition to their very generous pensions, health and life insurance, housing deduction and assorted perks. The federal minimum wage, by contrast, is lagging severely behind inflation. Had Congress kept the minimum wage at the same purchasing power as it was in 1968, it now would be $7.50 per hour.

Millions of Americans are working today for wages that buy far less livelihood than minimum wage workers bought in 1968. During this time the economy has doubled in real GDP per capita.

The failure of our economy to provide for working families is in part a failure of Congress, the White House and their surrender to business lobbyists whose prices certainly have not stagnated and whose executive compensation has soared.

The moral authority of Congress to govern reflects itself to many citizens by the way the legislators handle their pay. The Congress has been handling it very poorly. Thirty or even twenty years ago, Congressional Committees would hold public hearings and conduct public floor debates on increasing the legislators’ pay. Members of the House and Senate used to have to stand up and vote one way or the other. There was intense talk radio and other media interest in this character examination.

But, being a law unto themselves, Congress changed the rules. No more public hearings. Doing nothing gets them more money. For there is an automatic COLA inserted into a much larger appropriations bill for the Treasury Department. To get a floor debate and a roll call vote requires a proposed amendment and that may not be allowed on the floor by the intricate rules of the House. Nice immunity from the American people who pay those salaries, eh?

Over at the Senate, Senator Russ Feingold (Dem. Wisconsin) has vowed to force a vote up or down on the floor next month. Last year, he lost such an effort, but garnered a total of 33 Senators voting against that year’s pay grab.

The majority in the Senate, including the leadership, Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Trent Lott, not only voted for their salary increase but were downright smug and patronizing toward Feingold. If the lawmakers who are lining their own nest have no fear of a citizen revolt on such a personal issue (and the polls consistently show overwhelming opposition to their regular salary increases by the people), why should Congress be responsive to the peoples’ sensibilities on matters dealing with health insurance, drug prices, money corrupting our elections, burgeoning federal deficits, bloated military budgets and an overbearing foreign policy.

Think of the context for the Pay Raise drive. Our economy is wobbly; unemployment is growing; consumer, corporate and national debts are at all-time records. The Congressionally unfettered corporate crime wave underway for years is eating at jobs, pensions and investor equities. Meanwhile, the ravages of high level greed by the powerbrokers are everywhere.

Yet, Congress is at its annual stealth pay raise maneuver once again.

It is time for the people to teach Congress a lesson. If you focus on your two Senators – calls, letters, e-mails, meetings back home – you’ll have their election-time fingers in the wind blowing in the responsible direction. Be imaginative – ask them whether they want more signatures on the next letter you send; send copies to their opponents and members of the media.

On August 14, 2002, a coalition of national conservative and liberal groups sent a letter to each Senator asking them to oppose the proposed $5,000 Congressional pay raise (almost half the minimum wage for a worker laboring for a full year).

They pointed out that there is no shortage of highly qualified candidates willing to run for Congress at the current salary. Actually, most newly elected members of the House of Representatives receive a substantial salary increase, compared to what they were paid in their former job.

For a copy of the full text and other action-oriented information, access the website www.congressproject.org or call (503) 235 – 8012. The Congressional switchboard for your Senator is (202) 224 – 3121.

 

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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