Freshman Dem takes up cause against pay raises

A freshman House Democrat wants to hit his congressional colleagues where it hurts: in the pocketbook.

Rep. Eric Massa (N.Y.) has taken up Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) longtime pet issue of trying to end automatic pay hikes for members of Congress.

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Massa says he will circulate a discharge petition to try to force the House to vote on a bill that would stop the pay-raise practice in its tracks. The raise goes into effect automatically each year when the Transportation-Treasury bill becomes law.

Earlier this year the Senate passed legislation terminating the automatic increase for members of Congress, but the bill has stalled in the House as Democratic leaders have refused to move it.

“At a time when American families are struggling to pay the bills, I don’t think we should be giving members of Congress pay raises,” Massa said in a statement. His first official act after being sworn into Congress in January was to sign on to the House version of Feingold’s bill.

By offering a discharge petition, Massa is wading into legislative waters fraught with landmines.

The move comes the same day the spending bill covering Congress’s own budget hit a snag as Senate leaders debated whether several GOP-sponsored amendments should be considered on the floor. One of them, offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), would stop members' automatic pay raises and is identical to the bill that unanimously passed the Senate in March.

By attaching it to the legislative branch appropriations bill, Vitter hopes to force Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hand. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is unlikely to agree to hold a vote on the amendment. Members have an agreement not to take up a bill ending the automatic increase because of the political pressure all lawmakers would face to vote for it.


Reid only offered the bill that passed in March after Vitter tried to attach it as an amendment to the 2009 omnibus spending bill, which also would have forced a vote in the House. Reid gave Democrats political cover by offering it as a standalone bill.

Brandishing a discharge petition is a bold move for a new member of the majority party — and one that won’t win him any favors with Democratic leaders.

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Discharge petitions are rare and are seldom successful because they require that a majority of members sign them (218). They also embarrass leaders in charge of the full action by forcing a vote on a bill leaders have snubbed — most often purposely. Most of the time, members of the opposing party circulate discharge petitions for the sole purpose of embarrassing the majority leadership. The signers are public so lawmakers from the majority party usually are pressured not to sign them and open themselves up to retribution if they do.

Massa, a former Navy officer and aide to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, was a longtime Republican who left the party over the way the Bush administration handled the Iraq war.

Feingold thanked Massa for taking up the mantle, arguing that especially during tough economic times, members should have to vote on giving themselves a pay raise.

“I am grateful for Congressman Massa’s leadership on this effort to end the annual, steal pay raises that member of Congress get, without any debate or vote,” Feingold said in a release. “With more and more Americans losing their jobs, it is inexcusable that members of Congress get automatic raises.”

In 1989, Congress passed an amendment allowing for an automatic cost-of-living increase each year unless the House and Senate specifically vote to reject it.

Congress already has acted to eliminate its raises for 2010. In January 2009, members of Congress were given a $4,700 raise through the automatic pay raise and are still receiving that increase.

The legislation would terminate the automatic pay-raise system Dec. 31, 2010, taking effect before the scheduled 2011 pay raise.