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Congress Does Not Deserve Any Special Treatment

Congress Does Not Deserve Any Special Treatment

Russ Feingold and David Vitter - April 14, 2009

As families across the United States struggle with a troubled economy, they are being forced to make sacrifices and rein in their budgets.  Now, more than ever, folks are more mindful of spending their money wisely – both in their own personal finances and in the government’s use of tax dollars.

Rightful public concern has grown on both sides of the political aisle about the appropriate use of public funds for Wall Street bailouts as taxpayers wait for a positive return on their investment.  We hold different opinions as to how government should best spend taxpayer dollars, but one misuse of public funds should unite all Americans in outrage – automatic pay raises for members of Congress.

 Since 1989, when Congress passed a law making annual pay raises automatic, members of the House and Senate have received regular pay increases based on a formula set by that legislation.  This 20-year-old backdoor pay raise system has allowed Congress to increase its own pay virtually every year without public debate and with very little – if any – public attention.

 We have no doubt that this provision shares large bipartisan support in Congress, although such supporters are more likely to keep that support secret.  The problem is that this is simply not the type of bipartisanship that Congress or the public are looking for.

That is why we have joined together in a bipartisan effort to bring about a permanent end to this outrageous practice of automatic pay raises for members of Congress.  If Congress wants to increase its pay, it should do so publicly and it should do so through debates, votes and legislative committee hearings.  The American people should have a chance to weigh in too – instead of paying for raises without even knowing it.

Exposing fraud and the abuse of public money are rightly the focus of many public hearings on Capitol Hill.  All we are asking now is for members of Congress to focus some of that demand for transparency on themselves.

At a time when so many Americans are losing their jobs and struggling to pay their mortgages, these raises are all the more offensive.  Most Americans don’t have a formula at their job that gives them automatic pay increases, and Congress shouldn’t either.

Last month, the Senate finally approved legislation that ends automatic pay increases for members of Congress.  This feat could not have been accomplished without the influx of letters and phone calls that came into Congress as public outrage over the pay raises grew into a national discussion on issues that have long angered many people across the country.  The final bill that passed was virtually identical to the legislation that we have been advocating for some time.

We believe that this an important step to bringing real reform and changing business as usual in Washington.  Of course, the next big step is getting the House leadership to take on the cause and shepherd this bill through their chamber and send it to President Obama for his signature.

 Many congressional members believe they’ve done enough to address the issue by passing a measure in the recent stimulus bill that would forgo only this year’s annual pay raise.  But this one year freeze doesn’t remove the automatic raise for good; it only suspends it for a year.   

 Congress has an opportunity here to show the American people that we are truly serious about fiscal discipline and reform.  We’ve both sent letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to make good on the promise of ending the “business as usual” approach to pay raises of which so many Americans disapprove.

 As families across the country struggle through these tough economic times, Congress must show it understands that "business as usual" just doesn't cut it.  Folks throughout America aren’t getting any special treatment.  Neither should Congress.

Russ Feingold is a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin and David Vitter is a Republican Senator from Louisiana.

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Russ Feingold and David Vitter

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