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Congressional pay raises in sights of Buchanan, others

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state says it’s time to end the practice of giving automatic pay raises to members of Congress, who currently earn a minimum of $174,000 per year. Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan would prevent members from getting any pay raise until the federal budget is balanced.

Some members say it’s time for a pay cut: Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state backs a 5 percent reduction, while Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado says it should be a decrease of 10 percent.

And Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia has taken matters into his own hands, declining the federal government’s health care coverage and returning 15 percent of his salary.

With the economy still reeling in much of the nation, members of Congress are eager to show that they’re in touch with the economic pain of their constituents.

That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do: Nearly half of them are millionaires.

But so far, at least seven pay-related bills have been introduced in the new Congress, and at least 55 members are pushing the legislation.

“At a time when so many American families are struggling, the last thing Congress should be doing is giving ourselves raises – we need to continue our focus on putting workers back on the job,” said Murray, who has voted for pay freezes in the past.

Two days after the new Congress convened in January, Buchanan filed legislation that would prevent members from getting raises until they balance the federal budget. Buchanan, who is among the richest members of Congress, noted that the current share of the national debt is now $44,866 for every man, woman, and child in the nation.

“Every family in America has to live within its means, why should the federal government be any different?” asked Buchanan, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Until Congress gets spending under control, it doesn’t deserve a salary hike.”

A spokesman said Buchanan has sponsored the pay freeze legislation the past two congressional sessions and is optimistic that it’ll get “serious consideration, given the new House majority’s effort to reduce spending and restore fiscal sanity to Washington.” Buchanan has also called for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Congress decided to make its pay raises automatic in 1989, giving legislators a way to avoid tough votes that could hurt them when they run for re-election. Since then, congressional salaries have nearly doubled, though Congress blocked raises for itself in 2010 and 2011.

The bills to repeal automatic pay raises are the most popular this year, attracting 29 cosponsors, including Murray. They’re sponsored by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah and Republican Rep. Todd Platts of Pennsylvania.

“In this economy, Americans across the country are out of work and those who are working are certainly not receiving annual raises,” McCaskill said when she introduced the bill late last month.

Matheson called the automatic raises a “stealth system (that) allows us to get a salary increase without lifting a finger.”

And Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, another cosponsor, said that if members of Congress think they deserve a raise, “they should have the guts to vote publicly for it.”

Coffman said his bill to reduce congressional pay by 10 percent would save the federal government more than $5.5 billion. The bill to reduce pay by 5 percent, which is cosponsored by Smith, was introduced by Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona only two days before she was shot in Tucson last month.

Rigell is not waiting for Congress to act. Last week, he wrote a letter to House officials asking not to receive benefits given to all members, including health insurance, dental and vision insurance, long-term care insurance, life insurance and retirement benefits.

Rigell was told that he could not unilaterally reduce his salary.

So he has set up a plan that will allow him to return 15 percent of his salary to the U.S. Treasury Department via payroll deduction.

In 1789, members of Congress were paid $6 a day. Their pay rose from $75,100 in 1985 to $162,100 in 2005, before hitting its current level of $174,000 in 2009.

Leadership positions pay more. This year, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will receive $223,500, while the majority and minority leaders will earn $193,400.