Monday, June 19, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Congress gives itself a sneaky pay raise

The national debt is more than $8.3 trillion and rising. Let me write out the entire number so you can get a sense of how money that is. Currently, the U.S. debt is estimated at $8,382,069,710,723. If you divide the debt among every man, woman and child living in the United States, each of us owes $28,035.

The national debt is just one of many problems plaguing this country.

More than 45 million Americans don't have health insurance.

Millions of Americans live below the poverty level. The national minimum wage is $5.15 and Congress has repeatedly rejected calls to raise it for an estimated 7.3 million Americans.

More than 12 million illegal aliens are living among us, with thousands more streaming across our border every day.

The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than three years old and has drained $400 billion from our treasury, with no end in sight for either conflict.

Gas prices have eaten away at the incomes of most working Americans and Congress hasn't lifted a finger to curtail the runaway profits of multinational oil companies.

Cable companies have increased their rates more than 50 percent higher than the rate of inflation in the past decade.

Our infrastructure (roads, bridges, highways, sewer plants) is crumbling around us.

So what has Congress been doing to fix all these problems? Not much.

Your congressman has been busy collecting lots of money from lobbyists and corporate interests so he or she can return to Washington, D.C., for another two years (or six years in the case of the U.S. Senate).

But Congress did find time from its busy schedule to give itself a pay raise.

Despite record low approval ratings (which are much deserved), lawmakers accepted a $3,300 pay raise on June 13 that will increase their annual salaries to $168,500.

The 2 percent cost-of-living (COLA) raise was the seventh straight pay raise for members of the House and the Senate.

There was a time when lawmakers routinely turned down the annual COLA, but the Republicans who have controlled Congress for the past decade decided they wouldn’t mind more money in their pockets.

Since 1989, Congress voted to make annual cost-of-living pay increases automatic unless the lawmakers voted otherwise. And guess what? They've forgotten to turn down the money ever since.

The pay raise didn't get much coverage in the media. I don't recall a press release from my congressman saying what a wonderful job he’s doing and how he deserves more money.

The pay raise was hidden inside the annual Transportation and Treasury Department spending bill. Members of Congress may be greedy, but they're not stupid. They'll take your money, but they won't be up front about it.

The bill gave government civil servants get raises of 2.7 percent, the same as military personnel will receive, according to the Associated Press. Under a complicated formula, the increase translates to 2 percent for members of Congress, the AP reported.

Who's going to notice a measly $3,300 more for members of Congress when these public servants have run up an $8.3 trillion debt?

It's not just the House that gave itself a sneaky pay raise. Last year, the Senate voted 92-6 to deny the raise, but those sneaky senators quietly backed away from the raise issue in House-Senate talks. In other words, if the House members vote to give themselves a raise, who are we to stand in the way?

Two-thirds of the members of the Senate are millionaires, so another $3,300 is pocket change for them. But wouldn't $3,300 go a long way to helping you and I pay for gas to get to work so we can pay taxes to keep these congressmen living in the lap of luxury? I know I could use another $3,300 to pay my electric and food bills this summer. I'm still paying off my heating bills from last winter.

I might even use the money to take my kids to the shore for a couple of days. We haven't take a vacation in six years. By the way, Congress will take its annual two-month summer vacation soon. That's not to be confused with the spring vacation congressmen recently took or the one they'll take right before the November election.

I applaud Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat from Utah, for attempting to get a direct vote to block the pay raise, which is automatically awarded unless lawmakers vote not to accept it. His efforts went nowhere. Matheson was the only member to speak on the topic, according to the Associated Press.

"I do not think that it is appropriate to let this bill go through without an up or down vote on whether or not Congress should have an increase in its own pay," Matheson said. But by a 249-167 vote, the House rejected Matheson's procedural attempt to get a direct vote on the pay raise, the Associated Press reported.

Matheson said he will once again be donating his annual pay raise to local Utah charities.

Maybe you should ask your representative or senator why he or she took the pay raise when they come around this fall asking for your vote.

Let's not forget that public pressure forced the Pennsylvania Legislature to give back its ill-gotten pay raise of July 2005. Americans everywhere should demand that Congress give back the money — and start earning its pay for a change.

Tony Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa.