Congress, Where 44 Percent Are Millionaires, Freezes Pay

Washington – Facing election-year pressure to keep a lid on their salaries, lawmakers in Congress have agreed quietly not to increase their pay next year.

As a result, most members of Congress next year will receive $174,000 in 2011 under legislation awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, the same amount they’re getting this year.

Under the law that governs congressional pay, senators and representatives were due to get an automatic cost of living increase on January 1, probably an extra $1,600 or 0.9 percent, unless they voted beforehand to turn it down.

Last week, they did just that. The Senate rejected the increase in a voice vote, and the House of Representatives concurred, 402 to 15. Even the small increase would have been hard to explain in the months before November’s elections.

“In almost every profession, salary increases are dependent on performance, experience, tenure or any number of factors other than really showing up to work every day,” said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, a longtime opponent of the pay raise.

Craig Holman, ethics and campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, a congressional watchdog group, noted that lawmakers probably won’t feel much financial pain from their vote.

“This isn’t where most members of Congress get most of their wealth. They got it through business enterprises they had before coming to Washington,” he said.

Senators had a median reportable net worth of $1.79 million in 2008, the last year such data were available, down from $2.27 million in 2007. House members’ median net worth was $645,503 in 2008, down from $724,258 the previous year.

While about 1 percent of Americans are considered millionaires, 44 percent of members of Congress were in that category. Fifty members had wealth topping $10 million.

Not everyone agreed with the freeze. “It’s a political maneuver,” said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who voted against it. “I apply the same standard to myself that I do for others. If you were due for a cost of living increase, you should get it.”

Watt said he’s never made as much in a single year in Congress — he’s an 18-year incumbent — as he earned the year before he arrived, when he was practicing law.

While the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent watchdog group, found that the economic downturn that began in late 2007 hit members of Congress hard, they still have more money than most.

Under a 1989 law, Congress’ annual salary is determined by a formula tied to private sector employment costs. Lawmakers’ salaries adjust automatically unless Congress bars or revises the change.

Lawmakers have blocked their own raise eight times under the law, mostly in the mid-1990s, when the rate of inflation was low and Congress was under pressure to balance the federal budget.

Still, pay has climbed from $6 per day in 1789 to $89,500 a year in 1987 to $141,300 in 2000 to the current amount. In a Congress polarized on so many issues, there was clear bipartisan support for going no higher next year.

“It would simply be unconscionable for Congress to raise its own pay,’ said Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz.