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Jeff Jacoby

Congress helps itself, again

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / January 30, 2008

Let us pause to salute the US Congress, whose members have once again shown themselves capable of surmounting partisan friction and institutional gridlock when it comes to serving a group of Americans they care about deeply: themselves.

When the 110th Congress returned from its holiday recess two weeks ago, the mountain of unfinished business it had left behind in 2007 was still waiting - everything from judicial nominations to bilateral trade agreements to the terrorist surveillance program to the farm bill. But the gentlemen and gentlewomen of the House and Senate made sure that nothing would impede what has become almost an annual tradition: the hike in their own salaries. When the sun rose on Jan. 1, so did congressional pay, from $165,200 to $169,300 - a tidy little jump of $4,100.

This marks the ninth raise Congress has given itself over the past decade. With the exception of 1999 and 2007, every New Year's Day since 1998 has triggered a boost in congressional salaries of between $3,100 and $4,900. While the median income of US families has increased by around $11,000 since 1998, the income of their representatives in Washington has increased by more than $30,000. Considering that the latter work for the former, the imbalance between them is striking.

It is also unconstitutional.

Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to pay itself with public funds, but the 27th Amendment circumscribes that authority. It provides: "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." The amendment limits the power of Congress to change its salary by preventing any pay raise from taking effect until the voters have had their say. Members of the House and Senate are free to alter the next Congress's salary, but they are prohibited from enlarging their own.

Within months of the amendment's ratification, however, congressional pay rose by $4,100, despite the lack of a vote in the House and Senate followed by an intervening election. A law enacted in 1989 - ironically, an ethics-in-government act - guarantees senators and representatives an automatic raise every January, unless they specifically vote to reject it. Whatever the merits of that law when it was passed, its incompatibility with the 27th Amendment is obvious. The whole purpose of the amendment is to give the electorate a political check on Congress's power to determine its compensation. The whole purpose of the 1989 law is to deprive the electorate of that check.

Absent a Supreme Court ruling, Congress is not likely to cease such brazen flouting of the Constitution - and the Supreme Court has so far declined to take up the issue. (Congress sets judicial salaries, too.) A voter backlash might do the trick, but the public's abysmally low opinion of Congress rarely has any impact on Election Day. Well over 90 percent of incumbents seeking reelection are routinely returned to Congress.

Senators and representatives once understood that the right to set their own pay carried with it the responsibility to let their bosses - the American people - know what they were doing. So before taking a raise, they would hold public hearings and a roll-call vote. The process was uncomfortable, and properly so: It shouldn't be too easy for legislators to help themselves to public funds.

But fewer and fewer members of Congress seem troubled by such ethical niceties. One of the handful who try vainly each year to stop the stealth pay raise, or at least put it to a vote, is Representative Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat first elected in 2000.

"I didn't know anything about this until I got here," Matheson said during a phone call this week. "It troubled me that we were sneaking a pay raise through in such a secretive manner. So I got up on the House floor to raise a procedural objection - and nobody else backed me up." Not until last summer did another member, Republican Lee Terry of Nebraska, join him in seeking an up-or-down vote to block the increase.

In an institution that tends to breed arrogance and self-entitlement, Matheson is at pains to remember that he works for the voters, not the other way around. "I just know most of my constituents don't benefit from an automatic adjustment in their pay each year; $169,000 sounds like a lot of money to them," he said.

It is a lot of money, and there will be more of it next year. Even more the year after that. Members of Congress may never get around to your priority, but they do look out for number one.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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