WASHINGTON -- For the fifth straight year, members of Congress will see a jump in their paychecks in 2004, with election-year salaries rising from the current $154,700 to about $158,000. The Senate, on a 60-to-34 vote yesterday, rejected a proposal to exempt senators from a cost-of-living increase going to all civilian federal workers and military personnel. Last month the House, by a similar convincing margin, also turned back an attempt to deny lawmakers an automatic share of the increase.
As in past years, the effort to deny senators their pay raise was led by Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who has a policy of returning to the Treasury any pay he receives that is above his salary when he began his six-year term.
"How can Congress give itself a $3,400 pay raise while nearly 9 million people are unemployed, and 2 million have been out of work for more than half a year," Feingold asked.
With the latest increase, he said, members will have received five consecutive pay hikes totaling more than $21,000.
Congressional salaries showed little movement in the 1990s, when Republicans gained majorities in Congress under a platform of curtailing overall government spending, but in recent years lawmakers have accepted their cost-of-living increases with little fanfare.
"I think that our representatives of government deserve a pay raise consistent with the work that we've produced," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist.
"This is not a pay raise. This is an increase that's required by law," said Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska. The question, Stevens said, "is whether the cost-of-living provision in this bill should provide to members as it does to other people who work for the federal government."
But Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a taxpayers' rights group, said the congressional calls "for solidarity in a time of national sacrifice here and abroad ring awfully hollow when lawmakers vote to line their own pockets."
The $90 billion spending bill for the Transportation and Treasury departments in fiscal 2004 includes a 4.1 percent cost-of-living increase for most federal workers and military personnel. Under a complicated formula, that translates to 2.2 percent for members of Congress, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Supreme Court justices. The raise goes into effect automatically unless lawmakers vote to exempt themselves from it.
That's slightly less than the average wage increase in private business. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages among all nongovernment workers rose an average 2.7 percent from July 2002 through June 2003. The raise does not affect President Bush's salary of $400,000. Currently, the vice president, top leaders in the House and Senate, and the chief justice receive $198,600. Associate justices of the Supreme Court get $190,100.