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Opinion: Giving Congress a pay raise is politically radioactive. It shouldn’t be

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House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) proposed a pay bump for Congress, whose members have not had a raise in a decade.
(Alex Edelman / Getty Images)

A plan by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to engineer a pay raise for members of Congress — whose salaries have been frozen at $174,000 since 2009 — has run aground, at least for now. It’s a reminder that pay increases for elected officials, no matter how modest, are politically radioactive.

They shouldn’t be. Ideally, even populist-minded citizens would recognize that members of Congress should be adequately compensated and that their pay should be increased from time to time to reflect changes in the cost of living. In reality, any proposed increase in congressional or legislative pay will occasion howls of opposition, to the point that the beneficiaries of the proposed raise rush to say they don’t want it.

That is what has happened with congressional pay over the last decade. The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 provides for annual adjustments in congressional pay based on changes in compensation in the private sector (although the percentage can’t exceed the percentage base pay increase for other federal employees). But those increases can be blocked by legislation, and Congress repeatedly has voted to block scheduled increases, fearful of the wrath of constituents.

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Hoyer hoped to end the stagnation by persuading his colleagues to support a scheduled $4,500 pay increase for 2020. He gained a prominent ally in progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who put an egalitarian spin on the idea. She told the Washington Post that everyone should get a cost-of-living increase — “members of Congress, retail workers, everybody.”

But Hoyer ran into resistance from other Democrats. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes the city of Flint, told Politico: “When working Americans are not seeing their wages go up, I can’t imagine how we do this.” Meanwhile, Hoyer hasn’t received as much political cover from Republicans as he had hoped for.

Part of the problem is that members of Congress and state legislators will always earn more than many of their constituents. Many citizens find that offensive and even undemocratic. (The assumption seems to be: “Nobody I voted for should make more money than I do.”)

And it doesn’t matter how salaries are increased. If legislators vote directly to raise their pay, they will be criticized for self-dealing. But if they delegate decisions about their pay to an independent commission they will be accused of cowardice. They can’t win.

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The scheduled increase in congressional pay would be a drop in the ocean of government expenditures, and it can be justified on grounds of fairness. That it’s still considered taboo is a depressing commentary on what voters think of Congress — and what members of Congress think of voters.

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