Last March, U.S. Rep. Kirkpatrick sponsored legislation to cut congressional salaries a modest 5%, saying it was high time that Congress shared the pain with the rest of America. As U.S. workers have suffered layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs over the past two years, Congress has actually been spending more money than ever. In fact, if it hadn't been for another bill that Kirkpatrick supported, Kirkpatrick and her colleagues in the U.S. legislature would have gotten automatic pay raises this year, as they did in 2008 and 2009.
The notion of cutting Congressional pay is wildly popular. A recent survey by the Rasmussen Reports found that 75% of Americans think members of Congress should cut their pay until the budget is balanced. And nearly one in eight think members of Congress should not be able to get a raise unless taxpayers vote for it.
As things stand, members of Congress set their own pay and they've been quite generous. Rank and file members of congress now earn $174,000 annually -- more than about 97% of the rest of the country. That's up 23% over the past decade.
When giving themselves generous raises began to spark public ire, legislators passed a bill to make annual pay hikes for Congress automatic. If Kirkpatrick's legislation passed, it would be the first Congressional pay cut in 77 years -- since the Great Depression.
It's worth mentioning that cutting Congressional pay would still be generous. In addition to their $174,000 annual salaries ($193,400 for House and Senate leadership), all members of Congress have discretionary office accounts worth roughly $1.5 million and travel at the public's expense. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Congressional perks, though scaled back bit over the past decade, are still rich enough to make you drool.
So what's the hold up in cutting Congressional pay? Congress, of course.
Members of Congress are doing what they always do when there is a popular bill that they want to kill. They're ignoring it. That allows the bill to die quietly of neglect.
To pass legislation, you must get it heard in committee and then have the bill brought to the floor of the House for a vote. But if it's brought for a vote -- particularly in an election year -- everyone will know who voted against it. If you don't want to do something that politically unpopular, you simply don't schedule the bill for a hearing. It never gets voted on at all. The term of art for this process is called letting a bill "die in committee."
The benefit of that? No elected leader has to cope with the unpleasant consequences of telling the American people with actions (which speak louder than than words): "We don't feel your pain and we don't want to."
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