Pelosi Dodges Chance to End Automatic Pay Raises

March 13, 2009 - 8:17 AM
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Washington (AP) - Congress' automatic pay raises are in little immediate danger of being scrapped for good, even with the economy slumping and millions of Americans unemployed.
 
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday would not commit to holding a vote on a bill to do away with the annual cost-of-living increases. She pointed out that Congress recognized the economic crisis by voting this week to skip next year's raise.
 
In so doing, though, lawmakers defeated a Senate measure to abolish the automatic pay hikes and force them into the deep discomfort of casting actual votes to give themselves raises.
 
No one is rushing to defend the current system in a tanking economy that has rendered the annual raise a quaint memory for many outside Washington.
 
Even inside the Beltway, President Barack Obama has frozen pay for about 100 White House workers making six-figure salaries -- an acknowledgment that appearances matter to a financially fragile nation.
 
But scrapping Congress' own automatic, cost-of-living raises for good? That's where congressional leaders drew the line this week -- and buried it beneath an avalanche of legislative process, blame-passing and rhetoric.
 
Competing proposals on the Senate floor earlier in the week effectively canceled each other out.
 
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican with personal issues that could threaten his re-election, talked of adding a ban on automatic congressional raises to a $410 billion spending bill already passed by the House.
 
Great idea, alleged Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's also facing a tough re-election fight next year. But adding the pay issue to the bill would mean sending it back to the House, and that could kill the whole thing, Reid said.
 
Reid's problem, as he described it, was with the process and not scrapping automatic pay raises. In fact, Reid said, congressional raises shouldn't be automatic. So he proposed an alternative: a bill all its own almost identical to Vitter's.
 
Nope, Vitter said, because Pelosi was almost certain to ignore it.
 
Reid bristled.
 
"He knows that I can't represent what the speaker is going to do," Reid replied. "She doesn't know I'm here doing this. She runs her little show over there and I do my best to have some input on what happens here."
 
Well, not quite. Reid's gambit -- offering an alternative to senators who support the idea without actually having to vote on it -- was pretty much known throughout the Capitol hours beforehand. When Vitter forced a vote on his amendment to end automatic raises, the Senate rejected it 52-45.
 
But Reid also promised to pursue Vitter's idea, not just support it. "I will bring it up some other time," he said. "I'm committed to doing this."
 
So Vitter dropped his objection Thursday and, in a letter to the majority leader, urged Reid to bring up his bill. Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman, said the Nevada Democrat's plans for the bill were in flux.
 
The nation's founders set up the system to make congressional pay raises inherently difficult for those who would receive them. The Constitution requires Congress to set its own pay and be accountable to voters every few years during elections.
 
Congress has raised its own pay in stand-alone bills more than two dozen times, according to the Congressional Research Service. But in 1989, it passed a law providing for annual cost-of-living adjustments unless Congress votes otherwise. Lawmakers voted to skip their annual pay raises in 2007 and earlier this week voted to forego next year's because of the recession.
 
Their latest pay raise of $4,700 took effect in January and brought congressional salaries to $174,000.
 
Automatic pay raises curb grandstanding on the issue, said a spokesman for Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who supported the 1989 legislation.
 
The Senate's longest-serving senator "believes that those who do not want the cost-of-living adjustment can return that portion of their salary to the Treasury," said Byrd's spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.
 
Even if Reid follows through on his bill and the Senate passes it, the legislation has a dim future in the House, according to Pelosi.
 
"Members have an opportunity to vote on that each year," she said Thursday. "It's a lively vote on the floor of the House. We will continue that tradition."
 
Last year, the House did not take such a vote. And even when House members do, it's typically a carefully choreographed vote on whether to have a debate -- not a vote directly on whether to permit or deny the automatic pay raise.
 
In voting against such a debate, lawmakers guarantee themselves the raise. Leaders of both parties typically supply a majority of their members to guarantee the raise.