A Sentimental 5% Pay Cut for Congress?

28 September 2010  
Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick has proposed a 5% pay cut for Congress effective 2011 to apply towards the debt. But, is it enough? Will it make any difference? We look at the numbers.

pilesmoneyCongresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick has proposed a 5% pay cut for Congress to help pay down the national debt.

Unfortunately, the Kirkpatrick-sponsored bill H.R. 4720, hasn't been passed by either the House or the Senate - it was relegated to two committees in the House, the Committee on House Administration and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform 'for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker'. This bill would mandate a 5% pay cut for congressional representatives and would take effect in 2011.

On September 16, 2010, Kirkpatrick sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer urging them to hold a vote on her bill. She writes, "From the beginning, this bill attracted widespread backing from folks across the country. Yet for months, and despite multiple requests to move it forward, the bill has not seen any progress in the House. It seems that it is being swept under the rug."

You can read the entire text of her letter to Pelosi and Hoyer here.

Despite the lack of forward motion on her bill, Rep. Kirkpatrick has doggedly written $870 checks each month for her 5% share to the Bureau of Public Debt, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

Kirkpatrick's annual salary is $174,000.

About Congressional Pay Raises

The way Congress gets a pay raise is rather ingenious, actually. If a member of Congress proposes a pay raise, and that pay raise is voted upon and passes, it cannot take effect until after a congressional election. That's according to the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads simply, "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened."

(Interesting factoid: the 27th Amendment was initially ratified in 1789 by 6 states, but it was not fully ratified as an amendment to the Constitution until 1992. It took over 200 years to work it's way through the system, according to the 'Charters of Freedom', a U.S. governmental archive site.)

It didn't take long for folks in Congress to realize that there is a work-around to this obstacle. That work-around is a 'Cost of Living Adjustment' or COLA for short, enabled as part of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. The congressional COLA goes into effect automatically each year, unless Congress votes specifically not to accept the payraise.

In 1990, a member of the House of Representatives made $96,600, and Senators made $98,400. Since 1990, Congress has received 13 COLA raises, and rejected seven, bringing their current salaries to $174,000.

Both House and Senate Leadership members receive a higher salary.

For further information, see: CRS Report for Congress and House Votes Down Automatic Pay Raise

About the National Debt

According to the US Treasury Direct website, the Total Public Debt as of 09/23/2010 is $13,463,577,025,087.58. Yes, that number is over thirteen trillion dollars. This number is updated once a day based on reports and information received by the Treasury Department.

If you want a more current amount, go to the US National Debt Clock. When researching for this article, the Outstanding Public Debt was $13,477,321,350,633.30 as of September 27, 2010 at 12:21:15 AM Mountain Standard Time. According to the National Debt Clock at that moment of time:

  • The estimated population of the United States was 309,188,042
  • Each citizen's share of this debt is $43,589.40.

The National Debt has continued to increase an average of $4.08 billion per day since September 28, 2007!

Yavapai College Professor Terry Lovell speaks some hard truth about the national debt:

The Effect of a 5% Congressional Pay Cut on the National Debt

So, supposing all Congressional leaders did agree to take a 5% pay cut. Assuming they are paid $174,000, that would be $8700 annually apiece.

435 members in the House, multiplied by $8700, totals $3,784,500

100 members in the Senate, multiplied by $8700 would total $870,000

Together, it comes to $4,654,500.

At that rate how long would it take to pay off the federal debt? 2,892,593 years. Always assuming that the debt doesn't get any larger, and it doesn't accrue interest charges.

Could it help pay off this year's budget deficit? Estimated to be $1.3 trillion, it would take Congress about 279,299 years to pay off the budget deficit from 2010 alone.

A Look at Earmarks

What's an 'earmark'? While many refer to it as 'porkbarrel spending' Legistorm defines it like this: "The term ‘earmark’ generally refers to a federal expenditure that is specifically directed to apply to a particular local project or program, usually within the congressional district of the provision’s author. Though typically local, earmarked funds may also be allocated for national and regional programs. An earmark might be for a one-time expenditure or it might specify a certain amount of money to spent over a period of time."

Ann Kirkpatrick had 12 earmarks, totalling $14,147,000 (more than three times the potential Congressional 5% pay cut), Legistorm reports, for projects such as Reach out and Read and other educational items, as well as various road and infrastructure projects. All in all, Arizona legislators had 112 earmarks totalling $271,211,903.

Many in Congress don't approve of earmarks, and they think that earmarks are a bad practice, adding massive amounts to the deficit. Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona, who had no earmarks in 2010, is widely regarded as one who has led the charge to get rid of earmarks.

On May 27, 2010, McCain voted against the passage of the Fiscal year 2010 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, because of the cost to the American taxpayer in wasteful government spending. "The American people, particularly our soldiers and their families, are sacrificing enough already," McCain stated. "It’s time for earmark addicted elected officials in Washington to make sacrifices and forgo their pork barrel projects and other special deals to help provide our troops with the support and equipment they need."

See McCain's comment.

Suppose the legislators, in additon to voting for a pay cut, chose to forego earmarks. In 2010, 11,856 earmarks were requested by members of Congress, according to the Legistorm website, totalling $37,814,813,700.

If that money were applied to the federal deficit, it would only (!) take 356 years to pay off the federal debt. It would take 35 years to pay off the 2010 deficit alone if all earmarks were to be stopped. Still a very long time, of course, but a much bigger step towards a solution.

Frustration with the Debt

Do the American people care about the debt and deficit? Last week a new video was released. It was in direct contrast to a classic advertisement Ronald Reagan used in his re-election bid called Morning in America.

Today's version is called, "Mourning in America".


Perhaps Professor Lovell said it best. When asked about the 5% pay cut, Lovell said that Americans are addicted to sentimentality, referencing Oscar Wilde.

Lovell explained, "Sentimentality is basically the effort of having a moral statement without paying for it, and that's what Kirkpatrick is doing. This is a sentimental gesture towards the deficit. But the problem is that the deficit is a quantitative problem, not an emotional problem."

Lynne LaMaster