Congressional pay raise faces possible freeze

WASHINGTON (AP) - With the approval ratings of Congress still in the gutter, House leaders are engineering another freeze in lawmakers' automatic cost-of-living pay hike.

Just last fall, our elected officials shut down for 16 days – and they were still paid.

Fast forward five months, and Congressman Jim Moran tells our news partner WTOP that the $174,000 congressmen earn annually is not enough.

"There are too many members living and sleeping in their offices. And it's wrong," Moran said. "And when you look into it, it's not that they're cheap, it's not that they're trying to game the system. They can't afford to live here. It's wrong."

But this move would freeze congressional salaries at $174,000 a year and is attached to legislation to fund Congress' budget, which was approved by a House Appropriations panel on Thursday. Lawmakers haven't received a pay hike since January 2009.

Meanwhile, voters don’t even know how to respond.

"I don't really feel any pain -- $174,000, I'd like to have that much money," said Michelle Berkemeyer of Morristown, New Jersey.

"I don't think they're forced to have roommates, I don't think they're forced to have two homes," added Michael Barkemeyer.

But Moran says lawmakers have to maintain two households – one in D.C. and one in their home district:

"What I want to do is provide a per diem in addition to salary while they are here working on Capitol Hill," he said.

But he’s not saying how much.

Bipartisan reforms enacted in 1989 gave lawmakers a big pay increase in exchange for dropping the much-criticized practice of accepting money from outside interest groups for speeches.

That legislation also awarded lawmakers annual cost-of-living pay increases, which also meant that lawmakers no longer had to cast politically toxic votes to raise their pay.

Congress accepted the annual COLA for some years in the 1990s and for most of the 2000s but has voted to deny itself the raise for five consecutive years.

The scheduled 1.6 percent hike would give lawmakers a raise of about $2,800.

The congressional salary is generous but many lawmakers make but a fraction of the money than do the lobbyists who meet with them. And steep housing prices in the Washington area can be a hardship for lawmakers who opt to rent an apartment. In fact, more than a few lawmakers sleep in their offices during the three nights a week they typically are in Washington.

Moran acknowledged his proposal doesn't stand a chance and noted that he's in a unique situation to offer the idea since he's retiring at the end of his term and wouldn't be eligible anyway since he lives at home. Moran's assessment was shared by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee.

"You won't get a lot of votes," Cole said. "But you'll make a lot of friends."