Decades ago, when members of Congress voted themselves pay raises in the dead of night, it made Americans very angry. Those ugly pay grabs don’t happen anymore, as today these august solons have so completely rigged the system that their salary increases flow automatically.
That is, unless Congress suspends the ordinary legislative procedures to specifically bring up their scheduled earnings hikes and vote them down.
Yeah … right.
Actually, congressfolk did just that back in April. They voted to block next year’s “cost-of-living” bump that would have otherwise quietly added $2,800 to their pay stubs. Maybe the average member is thoroughly satisfied making $174,000 a year; maybe the Speaker is just okey-dokey with knocking down a mere $223,500 per annum.
Or perhaps the politicians are simply too scared of the potential for voter backlash — especially in sluggish economic times and with a divided and hyper-partisan Washington.
Back in the old days, congressional leaders were able to ameliorate such adverse consequences to their continued rule, because Republicans and Democrats were more congenial, more willing to reach across the aisle to hammer out agreements such as the Don’t-Campaign-Against-Incumbents-on-the-Midnight-Pay-Grab concordance.
That’s how a young Newt “Slippery as a Salamander” Gingrich survived a serious challenge from Democrat David Worley in the 1990 elections. In 1989, as the newly installed House GOP Whip, Gingrich helped push through a massive pay raise, upping congressional salaries by a whopping 40 percent. Gingrich and GOP leaders assured Democrats that Republicans would not attack them for voting to grab the extra dough. Democratic leaders returned the favor.
In a bipartisan love-fest, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown and Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater went so far as to sign a written agreement foreswearing criticism of the hike “in the coming campaigns.”
“The gag rule,” as Utah’s Deseret News dubbed it, “was accompanied by notice from the party officials that any breach could result in censure from a candidate’s own party and a cutoff of party campaign aid for non-incumbents.”
When Democrat challenger David Worley continued to campaign against Gingrich “morning, noon and night” over the pay raise, the Democratic Party committees — in what the Orlando Sentinel called “a breathtaking move that would make you wonder if this is a free country” — cut off Worley’s campaign financially.
Gingrich ended up prevailing by a mere 974 votes … and went on to collect his pay increase. For many more terms.
When Democrats complain ever-so-bitterly about Mr. Gingrich, it’s always nice to remind them how national Democratic leaders put their own wallets ahead of the issues and the people they claim to believe in and represent — essentially ensuring Newt’s re-election.
Same can be said about folks bemoaning today’s partisanship. At worst, it is not as bad as yesteryear’s more predictable bipartisanship, which so brazenly fleeced the American people.
So, everything’s a mess — from foreign policy to domestic policy to issues of ethics and basic standards of governance — but at least our despised national legislature will not be infuriating the people by voting themselves a 2015 pay raise.
Hip, hip, hooray.
But not so fast: As mad as it apparently once made us when politicians voted to take more of our money and give it to themselves, it seems that a very similar scheme has really caught on with a solid majority of Americans … in a different context. A plethora of polls show voters want politicians to order businesses to pay them more by passing a law raising the minimum wage.
And if our so-called representatives won’t vote a raise for those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, in at least four states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — voters will see ballot initiatives whereby they can vote directly to force employers to pay more.
The campaign is even pitched suggesting we should simply “give ourselves a raise.” With someone else’s money of course.
Does that matter?
Morally, citizens voting themselves a wage hike with other people’s money are no better than politicians voting themselves higher pay with our money.
Intellectually, if the president and so many policy makers and even more working voters think the best step toward economic growth and upward mobility is for the government to simply order businesses to pay workers more — as if outlawing the hiring of workers below the new minimum rate will magically spur a more equal and prosperous society — what other magic spells can we expect?
September 7, 2014
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.