Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Cost Of Living Large in the US House

In Congress, almost every bad idea started life as the solution to an earlier problem.

The book-deal-and-speaking-fees scandals that eventually cost the Democrats first their House leadership, then control of Congress, led to "ethics reform," in which those arrangements were banned in exchange for a regular cost of living (COLA) adjustment to be made automatically--unless the members of Congress specifically vote not to accept it.

Want to guess how often that's happened?

You're right--and it didn't happen again this week, either.
The annual vote on the pay hike comes on an obscure procedural move — instead of a direct up-or-down vote — and Democratic and GOP leaders each delivered a majority of their members to shut off the move to block the pay hike.

This year's vote was made ticklish by last year's battle. Republicans said Democrats broke a promise not to use the pay raise issue against GOP lawmakers in campaign ads and therefore were, generally speaking, more reluctant to supply votes.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., worked the floor during the vote to make sure there was relative balance between the warring parties in delivering votes. Working through Blunt, Hoyer forced more than a dozen Republicans to switch their votes in support of accepting the raise, including Reps. Mike Pence and Dan Burton of Indiana and Fred Upton, Dave Camp and Vernon Ehlers of Michigan.

Most members support the pay raise as a means of retaining experienced lawmakers and of making sure that Congress is not simply dominated by wealthy people. Many lawmakers maintain homes both in the expensive Washington housing market and back in their districts. On most days, they meet with lobbyists making far more than they do.

So--after taking a moment to savor this rare moment of congressional bipartisanship--let's do the numbers once again:

$4,460: Automatic COLA salary adjustment for every House member

$169,660: House salary after COLA adjustment

$92,927: Median salary for a DC lobbyist (2007)

$33,666: Per capita personal income in Oregon (2006)

$0: Amount by which Oregon per capita income will be automatically adjusted upward this year to allow for cost of living.

$7.80: Minimum wage (Oregon, 2007)

$5.15/hr: Current minimum wage (Federal, 2007)*

21.6 weeks: How long you'd have to work at federal minimum wage (40-hour weeks) to earn the latest COLA adjustment to House salaries

15.8 years: How long you'd have to work at federal minimum wage (40-hour weeks, no vacation) to earn a House member's salary for 1 year

* (Note that the federal minimum wage will increase to $5.85/hr starting next month, and gradually increase to $7.25/hr by July 2009. At $7.25/hr, it would take 11.3 years to earn $169,660.)

Sounds to me like the House needs to give a little less thought to the gap between their pay and lobbyists' pay, and a little more thought to the gap between their pay and their average constituent's.

Still, after flat-lining for 10 years under GOP congressional rule, the federal minimum wage is finally getting an increase. Elections do matter.

No comments: