Without the widespread public outrage that usually accompanies such votes, the Senate approved the first congressional pay raise in five years Wednesday, boosting the base salaries of federal lawmakers with a $3,100 cost-of-living increase.
On a 55-45 vote, the lawmakers gave final approval to a compromise Treasury-Postal Service spending bill, which contained a provision for a 2.3 percent inflation-related adjustment to congressional members’ $133,600 base pay. Earlier this week, the House voted 220-207 on the conference report, also accepting the pay raise.
Every year since 1993, when the adjustments were instituted, lawmakers have inserted a provision in the spending bill to deny themselves a raise.
But this year, with bulls running over Wall Street and Capitol Hill boasting a string of popular, bipartisan achievements, House members sensed little political backlash to breaking with tradition and accepting a raise.
Although senators had originally balked at the raise, voting against it when it came to the floor of their chamber, the Senate ultimately embraced the pay hike by accepting the House version of the legislation.
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said the lack of public outrage over Congress’ decision to take a raise reflects “people’s mellower mood” toward Washington.
“For the first time in quite awhile, the American public feels that Congress really did earn its pay,” he said. “The public has declared a truce with Congress.”
The Senate vote didn’t come without a fight, however.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who sponsored the original amendment to block the pay raise, said Congress should not raise its own pay at a time when budget cuts are demanding sacrifice of others.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Wellstone. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., co-sponsor of the raise-blocking amendment, said “Congress should not receive a COLA until we balance the budget.”
The vote split the Washington and Idaho congressional delegation over the last two days.
In the House, Washington Reps. George Nethercutt, Doc Hastings, Jennifer Dunn, all Republicans; and Norm Dicks, and Jim McDermott, both Democrats, voted to approve the bill that contained the pay raise.
Republicans Linda Smith, Jack Metcalf and Rick White, and Democrat Adam Smith voted no. Idaho’s all-GOP delegation was also split, with Helen Chenoweth voting no, and Mike Crapo voting yes.
In the Senate, Washington Democrat Patty Murray voted no, while Republican Slade Gorton and Idaho Republicans Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne voted no.
The vote could set the stage for political debates if Nethercutt decides to get into Washington’s upcoming Senate race.
The Spokane Republican had voted against the raise twice before, giving him a public relations advantage over potential Senate opponent Linda Smith who had missed an earlier vote.
“I felt I had made it clear how I felt about it (the pay raise),” Nethercutt said Thursday. “I wanted the process to move forward and not frustrate the entire procedure.”
During the vote, Senate leaders hovered around the table where the tally was being taken, and asked several senators to switch their votes from “no” to “yes” to guarantee passage.
Although the appropriations bill didn’t explicitly call for the raise - it was embedded in the legislation - political observers say the pay raise issue was the most meaningful and defining part of the bill. Among the senators voting for the measure were 29 Democrats and 26 Republicans; 16 Democrats and 29 Republicans opposed it.
Baker said lawmakers have been reluctant to vote themselves a pay raise, fearing a citizens’ revolt.
Lawmakers passed a law in 1989 to give themselves an annual cost-of-living adjustment, in part to take the politics out of pay raises and shield them from a political backlash. Since then, just to be safe, they have voted not to accept the raises.
Now, said Baker, lawmakers are pointing to the balanced budget agreement and welfare legislation as achievements popular with voters that will counter any hostility directed against their accepting a raise.
And, he added, it is unlikely very many voters will remember the raise when they next enter a voting booth.
“This is a good sign,” he said. “It really does, in a passive way, acknowledge that the public believes most members do work hard and deserve a raise.”