UNEMPLOYMENT IS AT its highest level in 15 years. Housing prices won't stop falling. The stock market has suffered its most punishing collapse since 1931, and shareholders have lost $7 trillion in wealth. Millions of workers have lost their jobs; millions more are worried about losing theirs. IRAs and 401k accounts have been decimated, and companies are halting their contributions to retirement plans. Retail sales are dragging, the credit markets have seized up, and worse is expected in 2009. The government has gone to unprecedented lengths to improve the economy, yet the economy keeps getting worse. The federal budget deficit is headed for a trillion dollars, and the national debt is well over $10 trillion -- and climbing. The number of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track is at or near its all-time high; consumer confidence is at its all-time low.
So what do you do now?
Well, if you're a member of Congress, you give yourself a raise.
Beginning this week, US representatives and senators will be paid $174,000 a year. That represents an increase of $4,700 and the 10th time since 1998 that congressional pay has been given a boost.
As has become routine, this salary hike is taking place automatically -- there were no hearings, no vote, no debate. No members of Congress stepped before the microphones to explain why their performance over the past year entitles them to a fatter paycheck. Or to make the case for helping themselves to more money at a time when so many Americans are out of work and financial distress is spreading. Or to shed light on the curious fact that people who are chronically late when it comes to passing appropriations bills or confirming judges never seem to miss a beat when it comes to pocketing more money for themselves.
Ask these distinguished solons if automobile executives should travel in private jets or if ExxonMobil's profits are too high, and they don't hesitate to give you an opinion. Ask them whether politicians making handsome six-figure salaries that are already more than triple the median US household income should be paid even more handsomely, and the only sound you hear is the crickets chirping in the distance.
"Finding anyone brave enough to defend the pay hike in Washington these days is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack," writes McClatchey's Rob Hotakainen. "When asked to comment, normally accessible members quickly go missing, are on vacation, are extremely busy with family members, or can't be reached on their cellphones because they're in remote locations."
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when members of Congress didn't make it an annual priority to pad their pay envelopes. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the House and Senate even cut their pay by 10 percent, then cut it by another 5.5 percent in 1933. Today's lawmakers, save for a handful of honorable exceptions, are about as likely to follow that precedent as they are to sprinkle anthrax on their Cheerios.
But even if they don't meet the ethical standards of the 1930s, couldn't they at least obey the Constitution they took an oath to uphold? The 27th Amendment bans members of Congress from giving themselves a raise without first facing the voters: "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 House and Senate can boost salaries in the next Congress, but they are constitutionally barred from boosting their own.
Alas, the 27th Amendment is a dead letter. Congress claims that putting its salary on autopilot -- it goes up every year without a vote -- gets around the constitutional restriction, and the Supreme Court has refused to rule on the issue.
And so we have the spectacle of congressional multimillionaires like John Kerry, Lamar Alexander, and Nancy Pelosi awarding themselves bonuses at the expense of their constituents -- some of whom aren't even getting a paycheck these days, much less a raise. You'd think members of Congress would be ashamed to take more of the public's money at a time when public approval of Congress is lower than ever.
Then again, if they were capable of shame, they wouldn't be in Congress.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)