Attempts to cut lawmaker pay stall . . . in Congress

By Emily Long

May 19, 2011

Lawmakers' bids to reduce their own pay are caught up in committee.

While career federal employees have seen a number of threats to their salaries and benefits, including an extended pay freeze, higher health care payments and an increase in contributions to retirement accounts, lawmakers have proposed cuts to their own compensation, citing a need to reduce costs and share the sacrifice.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., in January introduced legislation mandating two-week furloughs for all federal employees that also would cut lawmaker pay by 10 percent. Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., sponsored similar legislation. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in January introduced a bill that would reduce lawmaker pay by 5 percent.

Members of Congress receive automatic annual pay raises, which take effect on Jan. 1 of each year, unless lawmakers vote to decline the increase as they did in both 2010 and 2011. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and David Vitter, R-La., have sponsored bills to eliminate Congress' automatic annual pay raise. Reps. Robert Latta, R-Ohio; Jim Matheson, D-Utah; and Todd Platts, R-Pa.; have introduced similar legislation in the House.

Several lawmakers also have proposed cuts to their own retirement benefits. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., in March sponsored legislation that would prohibit members of Congress from receiving matching contributions to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts, a benefit also available to federal employees, in the absence of a budget resolution that reduces the deficit from the previous year. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in April introduced a bill that would require members of Congress to wait until they reach Social Security retirement age to access their federal annuity benefits. Lawmakers typically become eligible for retirement annuities at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than most other government employees but also pay more of their salary for retirement benefits.

The proposals have stalled at the committee level, however. Staffers from the committees that would take up the legislation did not respond to requests for comment.

"I don't think it is realistic to think members of Congress are going to give themselves a pay cut," said Randy Erwin, legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "Even in these tough budget times, that probably just isn't going to happen."

Union representatives charge that the lawmakers' push to limit their own pay is an attempt to rationalize cuts in federal employees' salaries -- and to justify the suffering a furlough would cause.

Matt Biggs, legislative and political director for the International Federation of Technical and Professional Engineers said a pay cut wouldn't affect Congress as much as it would most feds. "The idea that members of Congress are somehow making a financial sacrifice by taking a pay cut, or are actually doing something to have a meaningful impact on the debt, may look good in the newspaper, or be good politically, but will have no meaningful impact beyond that," he said.

"But the truth is that a pay cut taken by most members of Congress will not impact their personal finances as it currently is having on rank-and-file federal workers living paycheck to paycheck," he said.

By Emily Long

May 19, 2011