WASHINGTON — Pssst. Not many people know this, but members of Congress this month quietly received a healthy $4,700-a-year pay raise. The annual salary for rank-and-file members is now up to $154,700.
Only one member of Congress in the past two years has dared speak out on the House floor against what are now-automatic raises: Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
"When I looked behind me to see who was supporting me, no one was there," Matheson jokes about the two speeches and parliamentary moves he made against the pay hikes.
Pay raises used to be extremely controversial. Whenever Congress proposed one, talk radio hosts and editorialists would whip the public into a frenzy — and voters would literally jam members' phone lines with protests about salaries that are much higher than average for most Americans.
(Of course, most Americans don't have to keep homes both in Washington and their home states either, nor cars in both places.).
Public outcry prevented many raises. In 1990, the usual uproar appeared again and led the Senate not to give itself a proposed raise (but it let the House take one).
But Congress finally learned a lesson from the uproar that year. It passed a bill to make yearly cost-of-living adjustments automatic. Pay raises then came without any controversial votes — unless for some reason Congress wanted to vote to stop them.
Matheson for two years has tried to persuade Congress to do exactly that. He was as popular as a loud Los Angeles Lakers fan at a Utah Jazz home game — and just as ignored by colleagues.
In 2001, he wanted to stop pay from going from $145,100 to $150,000 a year. Last year, he wanted to stop it from going from $150,000 to the current $154,700 (or $9,600 in raises in two years).
In both years, Matheson sought to amend an annual appropriations bill for the Treasury Department, Postal Service and general government spending — which includes money that pays congressional salaries.
In his July 2002 speech against pay raises, Matheson said, "Since this session of Congress began, the Dow has lost 15 percent of its value. The Nasdaq has lost almost a third of its value. Unemployment is up. Profits are down. Retirement accounts are down. People are hurting, and we in this Congress should not be raising our pay."
He added, "Last year's government surpluses are long gone. We are swimming in red ink. We are fighting a war. We should not be asking the taxpayers to pay us more."
In 2001, he complained that the government was then sending IOUs to downwind cancer victims of atomic testing because it had failed to put enough money for them in compensation funds — but it still found enough money for its own raises.
Matheson could not win permission either year to hold a vote directly on pay raises.
The best he could do under House rules was make a motion to postpone a final vote on passage of the appropriations bill in protest. Others protesting other things they wanted in or out of the bill joined him, plus some who also did not want the raises but did not speak out on it.
In 2001, Matheson lost on a 293-129 vote. Last year, he lost 258-156. "We picked up 30 or so votes," Matheson said.
He and others began the fight against automatic pay raises a little earlier this year — almost immediately as the House convened. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced a bill, cosponsored by Matheson, to erase the pay raise that members just received.
Matheson said, "I like to expose things to the light of day, so I think we should vote on raises."
He added, "In the current circumstances — where we are incurring debt for war and the economy is moving in the wrong direction, this (taking a pay raise) is not the right thing to do. Also, federal workers had their COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) lowered, so it is wrong for us to take a raise."
Still, it's probably a safe bet that members will not let the new bill see the light of day, because they don't want the headaches that would come with votes on pay raises during tough economic times. The only way it would change, of course, is if voters somehow start jamming phone lines demanding a direct vote.
Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com