Buying honesty in Congress hasn’t been cheap

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 16, 2009

OK, raise your hand if your paycheck has gone up $90,000 in the past 20 years.

Yep, that’s what I thought. Not many.

That’s because not many of you are in Congress, where annual compensation has gone from $89,500 in 1989 to $174,000 today.

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Let’s be clear. I get sick of stories (and columns) that take the position directly or indirectly that people in public office should be paid only a pittance. Good pay for public officials is smart. I think we get what we pay for (or should), but I believe we should be honest about it.

And speaking of honest, today is Presidents Day and one of the honorees is Lincoln — Honest Abe — whose 200th birthday was last week.

Lincoln’s first taste of life in Washington was brief. It came as a member of the House, where he served one two-year term starting in 1846.

His pay was $8 per day, which, adjusted for inflation, would equal $182.68. If the House met every workday, that would translate to an annual salary of $47,500 in today’s dollars. But back in those days Congress convened for only a couple of months. They didn’t really need to meet much, because for its first 50 years, Congress only had an average of $22 million a year to spend.

Anyway, Abe quit and went back to Illinois to be a circuit-riding lawyer. That’s what he had to do to make enough to support his family. Only the rich could afford to be in public service in those days. It wasn’t a good situation.

Back to today. The relevance of going back 20 years when talking about what members of the U.S. House and Senate are paid is that when “honoraria” were being phased out.

It was a good thing to do. From 1789 until 1975, there was no limit on what members of Congress could accept in speaking fees and such. Tips, as it were.

It got pretty ridiculous. As an illustration, during most of the Vietnam era, the chairman of a committee deciding what aircraft the Air Force would buy was being paid $30,000 a year. But the chairman could be invited to speak at the annual company picnic of Boeing or some other aircraft-maker and paid a $50,000 fee. It was all perfectly legal and, ahem, there was certainly no quid pro quo.

That’s no longer allowed. No federal employees, in fact, can accept cash or gifts in relation to their jobs. But buying honesty in Congress hasn’t been cheap. Raises have come annually since, and in sizable chunks.

The way it works these days is that there’s a commission that meets and decides how much the raises will be. Unless members of the House and Senate find the time to actually file a bill, schedule and hold a vote rejecting what the commission has done, the new salaries automatically slide into the next appropriations bill.

There hasn’t been a single year since the commission method was adopted that Congress has said no thanks — until this year.

Having received $4,700 raises in October and being busy trying to come up with doing something about a tanking national economy since, members of Congress decided to sound a note of personal frugality.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signed off on a measure that if eventually passed will short-circuit the raises that would have been in the 2010 operational budget for Congress.

Assuming the raise would have been $5,000, the gesture represents a “savings” of $2.7 million in federal funds. That’s 3.3 thousandths of 1 percent of the stimulus bill just passed, but expect members to sound off on the “sacrifice” they are making, too. It will play well in Peoria.

For some reason, Americans continue to be more interested in what members of Congress are paid than in what they spend.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s true.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail