Despite record-low approval ratings, House lawmakers Wednesday voted to accept an approximately $4,400 pay raise that will increase their salaries to almost $170,000.
The cost-of-living raise gets lawmakers back on track for automatic pay raises after a fight between Democrats and Republicans last year and again in January killed the pay hike due this year. That was the first interruption of the annual congressional pay hike in seven years.
The blowup came after Democrats last year fulfilled a campaign promise to deny themselves a pay hike until Congress raised the minimum wage. Delays in the minimum wage bill cost every lawmaker about $3,100 this year.
On a 244-181 vote Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans alike killed a bid by Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Lee Terry, R-Neb., to get a direct vote to block the COLA, which is automatically awarded unless lawmakers vote to block it. The Senate has not indicated when it will deal with a similar measure.
As part of an ethics reform bill in 1989, Congress gave up its ability to accept pay for speeches and made annual cost-of-living pay increases automatic unless the lawmakers voted otherwise.
In the early days of GOP control of Congress, lawmakers routinely denied themselves the annual COLA.
Under the annual COLA, lawmakers automatically get a pay hike unless Congress votes to block it. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., worked to smooth the way for the pay hike.
Typically, the annual vote on the pay hike comes on an obscure procedural move -- instead of a direct up-or-down vote -- and the Democratic and GOP whips each delivered a roughly equal number of votes to shut off any 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 were, generally speaking, more reluctant to supply votes.
Hoyer and Blunt 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 Mike Pence and Daniel Burton of Indiana and Fred Upton, Dave Camp and Vernon Ehlers of Michigan.
Finally, moments after signaling with three fingers a demand for a few more GOP votes, Hoyer drew his finger across his throat as a signal for Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., to gavel the tally to a close.
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.
"Every member has some obligation to the institution for the compensation to, as much as possible, keep pace with inflation," Blunt told reporters Wednesday. "I think this should be as good of a job when I leave it as it was when I took it."
"I don't think this is the right time for members of Congress to be allowing the pay raise to go through without even an up-or-down vote," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "We need to show the American people we are willing to make some sacrifices ... that we recognize there's a struggle for some in today's economy."
The exact figure for this year's COLA has not been settled under a complicated formula that awards lawmakers a smaller pay hike than civil servants. But opponents of the congressional COLA estimated a pay hike this year of 2.7 percent, or $4,460.
Both House members and senators presently make $165,200 a year, with a handful of leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., earning more.
The pay raise would also apply to the vice president -- who is president of the Senate -- congressional leaders and Supreme Court justices.
This year, Vice President Dick Cheney, Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts receive $212,100. Associate justices receive $203,000. House and Senate party leaders get $183,500.
President Bush's salary of $400,000 is unaffected by the legislation.
By Andrew Taylor, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)