Our Opinion: The way Congressmen are paid

Monday, July 17, 2006

U.S. House of Representative members and U.S. Senators, without bothering to take a vote, accepted a $3,300 raise that will increase their salaries to $168,500.

Lawmakers easily squelched a bid by Representative Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, to vote on the cost-of-living raise, which is automatically awarded unless lawmakers vote to block it.

As part of an ethics bill in 1989, Congress gave up its ability to accept pay for speeches and made annual cost-of-living pay increases automatic unless blocked.

It is hard to argue that the $168,500 (plus a number of fringe benefits) is an excessive amount of pay for that level of responsibility. The excessively large staffs of lawmakers are more of a financial burden on taxpayers than the salaries of the lawmakers themselves, but that's another topic.

Many members of congress supplement salaries by other means, generally means that are legal if not always ethical. In modern times, lobbyists usually (but not always) replace the outright bribe with more subtle incentives.

That is why some people regard the pay of Congressmen as too low. They argue that with a higher base pay, Congressmen would be less tempted to sell their services to the highest bidder. However, only by electing people who place public service above personal ambition will we have ethical behavior in Congress.

The automatic pay raises without a vote is distasteful to many. There should be an independent commission overseen by the executive department to recommend pay raises with Congress having the right to approve or reject but not to increase the recommendation.