Some say they work hard for the money, and unless they pass a bill rejecting it, members of the U.S. Congress will get $4,700 cost-of-living (COLA) raise beginning in January 2009. The average member of Congress will realize a 2.8 percent raise, bringing his or her annual salary to $174,000. The raises for congress will cost taxpayers $2.5 million during 2009.
With passage of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, lawmakers authorized themselves the automatic – no debate, no vote – annual cost-of-living raise unless they specifically pass legislation rejecting or reducing it. Congress has voted to reject the automatic raise six times since then, most recently in 2007. In 2008, lawmakers accepted a $4,100 raise. So far, no legislation rejecting the 2009 COLA increase has been introduced.
Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution requires Congress to set its own pay. From 1789 through 1968, Congress set its pay by passing stand-alone legislation, voting itself raises 22 times. By 1968, the first congressional salary of $1,500 (1815-1817) had increased to $30,000. While Congress can still pass stand-alone legislation to increase its own pay, and did so in 1982, 1983, 1989, and 1991, members have since depended on the automatic cost-of-living adjustment for their raises.
"The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States." -- U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 6
From 1789 to 1855, members of Congress received only a per diem (daily payment) of $6.00 to $7.00 while in session, except for a period from December 1815 to March 1817, when they received $1,500 a year. Members began receiving a regular annual salary in 1855, when they were paid $3,000 per year.
During the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin proposed that elected government officials not be paid for their service. Franklin’s proposal won little support. As you might guess, this year’s automatic raise for Congress coming as millions of American workers are giving up their cost-of-living raises in an effort to save their jobs -- if they still have them – has similarly won little support.