Boehner under fire: First cut should be lawmakers' salaries

Soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) is being pressed by taxpayer groups to slash the salaries of House lawmakers.

Cutting member pay would show voters the new GOP majority in the House is going to lead by example in their efforts to rein in spending and start with their own wallets, say officials with three prominent taxpayer advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.

ADVERTISEMENT
“There has to be a visible gesture that people can immediately relate to,” said Pete Sepp, the executive vice president of the conservative National Taxpayers Union.

“And cutting pay would be one of the best symbols, because unlike virtually anything else the federal government does, when Congress spends money on its own salaries and benefits, people can make a direct comparison to their own situation,” Sepp said.

The last three House Speakers swept into the leadership role with the issuance of symbolic gestures, which typically correlates to the campaign platform that delivered them to power, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“[The symbolic moves] create images that build the party’s reputation and say, ‘This is what Republican rule means and these are things we stand for,’” Binder said. “These are symbolic things that a Speaker would want to do to set a tone or a message.

Boehner is slated to receive a $30,100 pay increase next year when he becomes Speaker of the House. His annual salary will be $223,500. The base pay for House and Senate lawmakers is $174,000, while majority and minority leaders each make $193,400 per year.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said that no decision has been made to slash members' salaries, but pointed to the promises the GOP made in its "Pledge to America" in September.

"The Pledge to America calls for cutting Congress' budget, but no specific decisions have been made about how that will be done at this time," said Steel.

Republicans gained about five dozen House seats Tuesday largely by running campaigns based on promises to scale back government spending, reform how the House operates and increase jobs for Americans.


“It’s pretty clear that the American people want a smaller, less costly, more accountable government here in Washington,” Boehner said to reporters the day after Election Day.

Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that by cutting the paychecks of members, Boehner would send the right message to voters.

Schatz explained that Republican lawmakers coming into Congress for their first term would likely support the move.

“[A salary cut] would at least indicate some greater level of understanding of the suffering that people have been subject to during this recession,” said Schatz.

“A lot of the new members, in particular, are coming in with a mindset of cutting spending wherever they think it’s reasonable, and I think starting with their own pay makes sense. They haven’t had that salary in the first place, so members on both sides would just consider it the starting point.”

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he supports members taking a pay cut, but when he spoke with Republican leadership aides recently, they were not quick to jump on the idea. However, Norquist said, Republicans might want to unveil the pay cut in a ceremonial fashion and not have their limelight stolen.

“I heard the rumor — and this may be true, but they just aren’t ‘fessing up to it,” he said.

Norquist added, “I talked to people around Boehner and they didn’t say, ‘No we’d never do that.’ They just weren’t saying ‘Yes.’ And if I were them, I would not tell me if they had some plan to do it because they want to announce it themselves.”

Members of Congress froze their salary in 2011 and did so this year as well, as they have on six other occasions since the law requiring lawmakers to vote against a cost-of-living increase was created in 1990, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the last time members of Congress took an actual pay cut was in the midst of the Great Depression on April 1, 1933.
 
And with more than 450,000 Americans experiencing joblessness, according to the Department of Labor’s latest numbers released Thursday, voters are going to be looking to Republicans for signals and symbols of actual change on Capitol Hill, Sepp said.

“The Republicans have set the bar very high for their re-ascendency to power, and that means they need to come up with a direct symbol to the public that’s just as strong,” said Sepp.

“When you think back to the last time when Congressional salaries were reduced in the early 1930s, the parallel becomes even stronger,” said Sepp. “If you wanted to make a big splash and say, ‘We’re doing something that Congress hasn’t contemplated since the days of the Great Depression.’ Well, this is the exact thing to do.”

Sepp said it would be “political suicide” to oppose a pay cut if proposed by Boehner, who as Speaker could easily bring a measure outlining the salary slash to the floor. And Democrats would be compelled to support such a bill, he said, especially because Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) sponsored a measure in this Congress that would have cut member salary by 5 percent. The legislation received 34, mostly Democratic, co-sponsors.

After taking back the House for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — a staunch environmental advocate from San Francisco — banned smoking from the Capitol halls and established the chamber’s environmentally friendly “Green the Capitol” program, which included compostable cutlery and a carbon offset program.

And former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), following the wave election of 1994 in which the GOP took the House using the campaign platform of smaller government, pushed to privatize the chamber’s internal services, like the barbershop, and do away with its ice delivery service in an effort to show voters that Republicans wanted to shrink the role of government and its egregiousness.  

Similarly, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was known in the House as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker and a former wrestling coach who was a high school teacher. As his first move as the leader of the chamber in 1999, Hastert responded to the increasingly vocal concerns of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and eased a ban on gifts they were allowed to receive. Since Republicans took over in 1995, members had not been allowed to accept even minor gifts such as t-shirts. Under Hastert’s change, lawmakers could receive gifts of up to $100 from one person or company in a year.