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Senators Pass the Buck

October 30, 2003

Finally, the U.S. Senate has generously agreed to accept yet another pay raise. Not every American would be up to this kind of daunting task, accepting a fifth raise in five years. It takes courage in a time of war against terror, chaos and ballooning budget deficits to hike your own salary by 15%, or $21,000 over those years, with no proof whatsoever that your productivity has improved even 1/15th of 1%.

It is hard work being a senator. Only 100 women and men are up to it. You labor, say, Tuesday through Thursday, meet with staff, talk to prying media and bothersome constituents, sit through parts of interminable committee meetings and endure more recesses than a day-care center. Then you're expected to get by on $158,000 salary a year, not counting personal wealth, free foreign trips, speech honorariums and health-care and retirement benefits.

Senators did America a favor. If they had declined this latest raise, how would we square such decorum and taste with the reputation of Capitol Hill, where elected folks do what they want anyway and then, if someone notices, cite a convenient cover story to prove necessity?

Here's how these things get arranged to leave no traceable political fingerprints: A 4.1% cost-of-living increase for most federal workers is slipped into the fiscal 2004 budgets for the Transportation and Treasury departments. Can't do without those departments, right? We need this bill. Under a carefully complicated formula, congressional pay raises automatically take effect with that bill unless the Senate votes to exempt itself. This way no one need admit ever voting for his or her own raise. (They just don't vote to stop it.)

"This is an increase that's required by law," Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said with a straight face.

As usual, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who returns all raises to the Treasury, proposed exempting the Senate from them. As usual, his idea was tabled, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) voting against him and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) not voting. Now, 100 solons declining a raise won't solve worsening federal deficits. That would take political courage.

How long do you think national health-care reform would take if -- without needing a vote, mind you -- we rescinded all health-care coverage for members of Congress until they forged a realistic solution for fellow citizens? What if we just left those expensive suits high and dry with no health insurance like some estimated 40 million Americans? Then we could talk about raises.

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