Irate taxpayers may put Congress' COLA on ice

| Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

With Congress under fire for accepting a pay raise while many Americans are getting pink slips, momentum is building to nix the automatic pay hike for 2010.

Angry feedback from constituents could push the issue to a vote this year, according to taxpayer watchdog groups and supporters of legislation introduced in the House last week.

"People across the state of Pennsylvania and across the country are hoping to hold onto their jobs, much less looking to get a pay raise or end-of-the-year bonus. So for Congress to take a raise with very low approval ratings and the economy in shambles really sends the wrong signal," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense.

It is a particularly resonant issue in Pennsylvania, where a taxpayer revolt forced the Legislature to repeal a 2005 pay raise that lawmakers approved in the middle of the night and that eventually cost some of them their jobs.

A majority of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation would support legislation to forgo the inflation-adjusted pay raise next year, according to a survey Tuesday of the state's 19 members of the House of Representatives and Sens. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia.

When the 111th Congress convened last week, its members got automatic $4,700 pay increases, bumping average salaries from $169,300 to $174,000. In 1989, Congress passed a law that gives members an automatic pay raise every January unless they vote to reject the raise. A bill to forgo this year's raise died in committee.

As criticism mounts from groups such as The Senior Citizens League, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, a bill to block the raise for 2010 has more than double the co-sponsors of a similar bill that went nowhere in 2008.

That measure, introduced by Rep. Harry Mitchell, a first-time Democrat from Arizona, attracted 34 co-sponsors. An updated version introduced by Mitchell and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has 70 to 80 co-sponsors, said Seth Scott, Mitchell's spokesman.

The bill likely will come to a vote because constituents are "disheartened to see members of Congress taking pay raises when a lot of people are having to voluntarily cut their pay in order to save jobs," Scott said.

At least five Pennsylvanians are co-sponsors: Reps. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, Christopher Carney, D-Susquehanna County, and Patrick Murphy, a Philadelphia-area Democrat. Several others said they would support blocking the next pay hike.

Altmire said it's "simply outrageous" for members of Congress to receive a pay raise at this time.

Dahlkemper believes the automatic raises should end. "With rising unemployment and a $1 trillion deficit looming, it is unthinkable that members of Congress should receive an automatic pay raise," she said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, explained the 2.8 percent increase as a standard cost-of-living adjustment.

"All federal employees, including members of Congress, receive annual automatic cost-of-living adjustments -- the only difference is that the COLAs members of Congress receive each year are half a percentage point lower than those for other federal employees," Doyle said in an e-mail.

Doyle added, however, he would vote in favor of a measure to rescind the 2010 pay hike.

State lawmakers got an automatic 2.8 percent COLA this year. It boosted salaries of rank-and-file legislators to $78,315, and more for those with leadership positions. Some legislative leaders and other members say they will return the money to the Treasury or give it to charity. The law, however, requires them to first accept the raise and pay income taxes on it.

The Legislature's automatic pay raise dates to a 1995 law that was supposed to forestall future pay increases. In 2005, lawmakers voted to increase their pay between 11 percent and 54 percent, sparking outrage from voters that led to the repeal.

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