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Automatic pay raises face a fight in Congress
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Automatic pay raises face a fight in Congress

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could vote yourself a pay raise?

For members of Congress, it’s even simpler: If they don’t vote, they get a pay raise.

By law, they get the same pay increase as federal employees unless they vote to turn it down. In recent years they’ve voted to turn down pay raises. Their salaries will remain $174,000 for 2010 and 2011.

Some Iowa congressmen want to take pay raises off autopilot and force lawmakers to vote on them every year.

“It’s not that congressmen are not entitled to a pay raise, but it shouldn’t be automatic,” Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said.

He has a history of voting against pay raises. In the mid-1970s, Grassley blocked a postal service bill that included an attempt to attach an amendment giving automatic pay raises. Republican and Democrat leaders had agreed not to force a vote on the measure, but Grassley objected. The amendment passed. Now Grassley is trying to repeal it.

An automatic pay raise sends a bad message to the public, which is already cynical about government, Grassley said.

“It’s a slap in the face to do it when people across the country are tightening their own belts. With the terrible deficit coming up, Congress has to set an example that we take the budget situation seriously,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat who serves Iowa’s 2nd district, also wants members to set an example and would go even further. He’s a co-sponsor of a resolution calling for a 5 percent, or $8,700, pay cut. If approved, it would be the first cut since April 1, 1933, during the Great Depression.

“It’s not everyone’s favorite resolution,” he said, adding he would like to cut more. “We have to do this to send a signal to the people who are hurting that we’re willing to take a cut.”

Although the resolution isn’t 1st District U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s favorite measure, he believes it would be appropriate in light of the economic hardship facing many Americans. The Democrat has voted against recent pay increases.

Congressmen and their staffs say any vote on their pay is a political football, especially in election years.

They also point out that the cost of living in Washington is high. According to sperlingsbestplaces.com, the cost of living in the nation’s capital is 57 percent higher than in Davenport. The bulk of the difference is in housing costs.

If congressional salaries don’t reflect the higher cost of housing, food, groceries and other expenses, it will make it more difficult for people of modest means to serve in Congress, they say.

“I was of modest means,” said Loebsack, a retired college professor. “I will be fine even if I take a 5 percent cut. This is about recognizing the struggles people are facing.”

Grassley and 19 colleagues — half up for re-election — have written to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asking for a House vote on a measure the Senate approved last year to end the automatic pay raises. So far, there has been no action.

Although the pay cut measure is gaining co-sponsors, Loebsack said it has not seen action. He agrees with Grassley that pay increase shouldn’t be automatic.

“We should have to vote on it every single year,” Loebsack said. “That would make it more difficult to raise it.”

 

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$174,000: 2010 annual salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate. Leadership positions pay more.

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