Congressional Pay Hike In The Works

Members of Congress seem to be on the road to giving themselves their third cost-of-living pay raise in four years, a $3,800 boost made less politically risky in this era of huge projected budget surpluses.

On a 250-173 procedural vote, House opponents of the boost lost their opportunity to derail the increase Thursday. Under a law passed in 1989, members of Congress automatically get a raise unless they vote to block it.

Underlining that the issue is still a sensitive one, no lawmakers spoke in favor of the raise and three complained about it during a brief debate. Rep. Ernest Fletcher, R-K.Y., compared congressional pay with the $25,000 average he said families in his district earn.

"The pay raise, I believe, is inappropriate at this time," he said, adding that its $2.5 million total cost is "a lot of money for folks back in Kentucky."

The 2.7 percent increase would put lawmakers' salaries at $145,100 beginning in January. By law, more than 1,000 top executive branch officials starting with the vice president would receive the same percentage increase.

Last year Congress passed a law doubling the president's current $200,000 salary to $400,000, effective when the next chief executive takes office. It would be unaffected by the congressional increase.

The law limits lawmakers' pay raise to less than what civil servants will receive and less than a complex measure of employment costs. President Clinton has recommended a 3.7 percent raise for federal workers.

Thursday's procedural vote came during debate on a $29.1 billion bill financing the Treasury Department and some smaller agencies for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1. By tradition, the Treasury Bill (H.R. 4871) - which contains no language providing the pay raise - is used for any attempt to block it.

It would be lawmakers' third pay raise in the past four years and the first they have approved during an election year since 1992.

The recent boosts coincide with a period in which the economy has boomed and annual federal deficits have changed into ever-growing surpluses now projected to total more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years. Prior to that, the last congressional pay raise took effect in 1993.