Dem lawmaker pushes for Congress's first pay cut since Depression

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) is raising the bar on freezing lawmaker salaries this week as she continues her push to garner support for her bill that would cut congressional pay by $8,700 next year on top of denying members their automatic cost-of-living increase.

With Congress’s approval ratings spiraling downward, criticism of government bailouts running rampant and unemployment hovering at 10 percent, a cost-of-living pay increase for lawmakers has become largely unpopular, with many members proposing to follow what they did this year and freeze their own pay again in 2011. 

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But Kirkpatrick wants to take it a step further and has put forward a measure that would not only halt the automatic pay increase that members get according to law, but also cut their pay by 5 percent next year, which would amount to more than $4.7 million in overall savings to taxpayers.

“Families across the country are getting by on lower wages and finding ways to cut back during the downturn, and these are the folks that pay our salaries,” said Kirkpatrick in a statement.

“The federal government’s budget is in much worse shape, so why shouldn’t senators and representatives have to feel the same pinch?”

Kirkpatrick’s office said that this would be the first time Congress decreased its pay in 77 years – the last time being in the midst of the Great Depression on April 1, 1933. Her measure has garnered 21 cosponsors so far, since it was introduced last week.

“It has been 77 years since Congress’ last pay cut [and] I believe we are long past due for another,” she said.

The law governing congressional pay raises requires members to vote against getting a raise. Otherwise, the raise takes effect automatically.

Congressional cost-of-living adjustments are calculated using a formula based on changes in private-sector wages and salaries as measured by the Employment Cost Index. Since this method began in 1990, Congress has accepted a raise 13 times and denied itself a pay increase seven times. 

The base pay for a House member is $174,000, though leaders earn a higher salary.

The House voted not to give itself a raise in 2009 and again in 2010. By rescinding the $2,610 salary increase for each member in 2010 (a 1.5 percent pay increase above current salaries), lawmakers saved taxpayers more than $1.4 million.

Another $2.5 million was saved by preventing the $4,700 increase for each member from going into effect in 2009.

In 2008, members did not opt to rescind their pay and received a $4,100 increase, or 2.5 percent, amounting to more than $2.2 million.

More than a dozen members put forward measures that would have rescinded their automatic pay raise for 2010 or required members to vote for their pay raise.

Again, many members have put forward measures to freeze salaries in 2011, with Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) leading the charge, while Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) is striving to cut lawmakers’ pay each year the government runs a deficit.

And Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants to scrap the automatic cost-of-living system altogether and establish an independent commission to assess possible pay raises, which would then be subject to an up-or-down vote.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is pushing to freeze spending on their offices’ operations until the nation’s unemployment rate and national debt are lower.

Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is leading the charge to eliminate any increase in member representational allowance (MRA). The measure would prohibit an MRA increase in any year that the national unemployment rate is above 6 percent or in any previous fiscal year that the Treasury Department has declared the nation’s debt more than $5.5 trillion.

The mounting support for the freeze comes as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Legislative Branch subcommittee on Appropriations, declared last month that any possible raise in the office allowance that members receive next year is expected to be small, adding that this year’s increase was 1.6 percent.