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Congress' cost of living raises to remain

WASHINGTON - Congress' automatic pay raises are in little immediate danger of being scrapped for good, even with the economy slumping and millions of Americans unemployed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday would not commit to holding a vote on a bill to do away with the annual cost-of-living increases. She pointed out that Congress recognized the economic crisis by voting this week to skip next year's raise.

In so doing, though, lawmakers defeated a Senate measure to abolish the automatic pay hikes and force them into the deep discomfort of casting actual votes to give themselves raises.

No one is rushing to defend the current system in a tanking economy that has rendered the annual raise a quaint memory for many outside Washington.

Even inside the Beltway, President Barack Obama has frozen pay for about 100 White House workers making six-figure salaries - an acknowledgment that appearances matter to a financially fragile nation.

But scrapping Congress' own automatic, cost-of-living raises for good? That's where congressional leaders drew the line this week - and buried it beneath an avalanche of legislative process, blame-passing and rhetoric.

The nation's founders set up the system to make congressional pay raises inherently difficult for those who would receive them.

The Constitution requires that Congress set its own pay and be accountable to voters every few years during elections.

Congress has raised its own pay in stand-alone bills more than two dozen times, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But in 1989, it passed a law providing for annual cost-of-living adjustments unless Congress votes otherwise. Lawmakers voted to skip their annual pay raises in 2007, and earlier this week voted to forgo next year's because of the recession.

Their latest pay raise of $4,700 took effect in January and brought congressional salaries to $174,000.

Automatic pay raises curb grandstanding on the issue, said a spokesman for Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who supported the 1989 legislation.

The Senate's longest-serving senator "believes that those who do not want the cost-of-living adjustment can return that portion of their salary to the Treasury," said Byrd's spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.


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