A HAPPY NEW YEAR? For US senators and representatives, it certainly is: As of Jan. 1, their salary is $158,100 -- the highest ever and an increase of $3,400 over the amount they collected last year.
Congress is notorious for procrastination, and the tally of unfinished business on Capitol Hill is a long one. But no one can accuse the legislative branch of dragging its heels when it comes to congressional pay. Appropriations bills may gather dust, judicial nominations may languish, but members of Congress are johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to their own salaries. The most recent raise is only the latest in an ongoing series:
On Jan. 1, 2003, they took a raise of $4,700.
On Jan. 1, 2002, they took a raise of $4,900.
On Jan. 1, 2001, they took a raise of $3,800.
On Jan. 1, 2000, they took a raise of $4,600.
On Jan. 1, 1998, they took a raise of $3,100.
That comes to six raises totaling $24,500 since January 1998. And why does Congress feel it deserves them? Ah, well, that's hard to say. Congress isn't talking.
Few Americans have the power to award themselves a bigger paycheck at will; fewer still can do so and charge it to the public treasury. The Constitution grants members of Congress the privilege of paying themselves with taxpayers' money, but with that privilege comes a moral obligation to operate in the sunshine. Or so it used to be understood. Once upon a time, senators and representatives knew that before they could raise their salaries, they had to hold hearings and take a vote. Those votes could be politically uncomfortable, and the public's reaction had to be taken into account. Not surprisingly, Congress tended to go long stretches between pay raises, and lawmakers knew better than to hike their pay during a recession. (On a few occasions, they even reduced their pay.)
But Congress has changed the rules. Under the system now in place, House and Senate members automatically get a pay raise every year. The only way not to get the raise is to pass an amendment blocking it, and parliamentary hurdles make that difficult to accomplish. Upshot: a congressional paycheck that grows by thousands of dollars a year -- with no hearings, no debate, no media coverage, no public explanations. Above all, no embarrassing votes -- not unless some spoilsport with more integrity than avarice insists on offering a blocking amendment.
One of the very few such spoilsports is Senator Russell Feingold, a liberal Wisconsin Democrat who for several years has introduced an amendment to stop the pay raise, and each time has seen his amendment tabled -- i.e., killed without being debated and voted on -- by a lopsided Senate majority.
"I object to the process," he said during a phone conversation last week. "This automatic, stealth pay-raise system is absolutely wrong. Especially now, when we're running the biggest deficits in US history, when so many people are out of work -- I find it startling that Congress would feel comfortable voting itself a pay raise."
And what kind of reaction does he get from his colleagues when he offers his amendment?
"It's not my most popular moment," Feingold concedes. "I get the coldest stares." Some senators try to reason with him. "They tell me about their kids' tuition. Or they say, 'Don't you think you're worth more money?' " He tells them that if they think they deserve an increase, they should be willing to vote for one.
Feingold puts his own money where his mouth is, refusing any increase in pay during each six-year senatorial term. Though he is perhaps the least affluent member of the Senate, he has returned more than $50,000 to the Treasury over the past 11 years. Meanwhile, multimillionaire senators like Ted Kennedy, Jon Corzine, and Majority Leader Bill Frist vote to table Feingold's amendment and preserve the annual stealth pay raise.
Some members of Congress claim they are underpaid; even at $158,100, they say, the salary of a federal lawmaker is well below what many people in the private sector make.
Maybe it is. But that doesn't stop hundreds of willing candidates -- including every incumbent senator and representative -- from running for Congress at the existing salary. Every member of Congress is free to walk away from Capitol Hill to earn more money in the private sector. Yet virtually all of them choose to run for re-election.
Maybe that's because most of them wouldn't be able to do better in a private-sector job. Maybe it's because the power and influence that come with holding federal office more than make up for any loss of income. Or maybe it's because the perks of office are so comfortable: In addition to their salary, members of Congress get (among other benefits) large staffs, free office space in their district and in Washington, numerous round trips home each year, free foreign travel, largely unlimited free postage, use of the lavish congressional gyms, and a pension far more lucrative than almost any private-sector plan.
So yes, by all means, wish your senators and congressman a happy new year. As usual, they're having one.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)