Vitter, a Louisianan whose personal issues have threatened his political career, pushed to add a ban on the automatic raises to the $410 billion spending bill signed into law this week.
With the economy in turmoil, members of Congress are particularly sensitive to the pitfalls of publicly backing automatic pay raises for themselves. At the same time, they know that if they ban the automatic raises, they will be forced, in the future, to hold a vote every time they want their salaries to go up. And there is never a good time for headlines about relatively rich public officials deciding to give themselves more taxpayer money.
So Vitter's proposal – while a smart move, politically, for him – put Senate and House leaders in a bind. The Associated Press detailed how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid handled the problem: He told Vitter that it was unwise to add the proposal to the spending bill, since that bill would then have to go back to the House, where it could be killed as a result of the addition.
Instead, Reid said, let's come up with a stand-alone bill on automatic pay raises that doesn't need to be attached to the spending bill, but that has the same effect.
Vitter said he didn't like that idea, because the bill could be ignored by the leadership and never come to a vote, like so many before it. So he forced a vote on his amendment to the spending bill. He lost, and the proposal was kept out of the bill. Reid, meanwhile, promised to take the stand-alone bill seriously and said he was "committed to doing this."
But there is no word on when, or if, Reid might bring the bill up in the Senate, however. As for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she refused Thursday to say if she will hold a vote on the stand-alone bill. She did note, however, that Congress voted this week not to take a pay raise next year.
The upshot is this: Instead of being forced to vote whenever they want to give themselves raises, Congress is holding to a system in which they only vote when they don't want raises. Hard to beat that deal.
As the AP notes, a $4,700 pay raise took effect in January; congressional salaries now stand at $174,000. Robert Byrd, who backed the pay raises back in 1989, argues that a system of automatic pay raises avoids grandstanding on the issue; his spokesman said Byrd believes that if members of Congress don't want the raises, they "can return that portion of their salary to the Treasury."