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An Open Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives: Cosponsor H.R. 4255, A Bill to Stop Automatic Pay Increases for Members of Congress

January 26, 2010

Dear Representative:

On behalf of the 362,000 members of the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), I urge you to cosponsor Representative Harry Mitchell’s bipartisan legislation (H.R. 4255) that would prevent an automatic pay increase for Members of Congress in 2011.

Rank-and-file Members of Congress currently make an annual salary of $174,000 (nearly double the median household income of about $90,000 for the Washington, D.C. metro area, including wealthy suburbs). This sum does not include taxpayer funds used for lavish pensions, health plans, and generous allowances for travel, staff, and office expenses. Given the current economic climate, it is inexcusable for Congress to pad its already sizeable compensation package as our nation continues to face 10 percent unemployment.

How did this auto-pilot pay raise system come about? As explained by Pete Sepp in the NTU Foundation Policy Paper “Congressional Perks: How the Trappings of Office Trap Taxpayers,” it did not start out this way:

According to Article I of the U.S. Constitution, compensation paid to Members of Congress “shall be ascertained by law.” The Founding Fathers intended Congress to set its own pay through the appropriations process, on the supposition that Members would be guided by their own sense of honor. In fact, lawmakers lived without a yearly salary up until 1854, having contented themselves prior to that time with a per-diem system that paid a flat rate for each day Congress was in session.

But thanks to a series of post-World War II measures, culminating in a 1989 “ethics” law, Members of Congress have sought to avoid accountability for salary hikes. Annual pay raises are now tied to the Labor Department’s Employment Cost Index:

COLAs [Cost of Living Adjustments] now take effect once the TTHUD bill [or in recent years the Financial Services Appropriations Bill] becomes law, although taxpayers would never be able to identify any language in the bill that appears to authorize these pay grabs. Members of Congress would need to specifically vote on, or insert, language blocking the raise if they do not want the increase to occur. Taxpayers are thus condemned to fight a bizarre annual battle over a COLA whose existence is only recognized when Congress opts to block it.

Last year, after introducing similar legislation, Representative Mitchell was successful in convincing Congress to forego an automatic pay raise of $4,700 for 2010. This saved taxpayers approximately $2.5 million. These same taxpayers are counting on you to take such a stance again this year by cosponsoring H.R. 4255 and directing the resulting savings toward reducing the deficit.


Jordan Forbes
Federal Government Affairs Manager