John Baer: Lawmakers need less pay, more common sense

Posted: January 12, 2011

EVERY OTHER January, as a new Congress and Legislature take office, there's a glimmer of hope for reforms to scale back salaries and perks.

There's a chance that an ember of empathy sparks elected officials to common sense, to live closer to the lifestyles of those they represent.

Already, that glimmer, that ember, is fading.

In Congress, a new Republican House, led by Speaker John Boehner, voted to cut its overall budget 5 percent but isn't touching members' salaries, currently $174,000. Boehner gets $223,500.

Think about your congressman. Think about what he or she does for you. Think about your salary. Think about economic realities.

The national median household income is $51,622. Whaddya think?

There are, in fairness, proposals to slash congressional pay.

One was offered (ironically) last week by Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords two days before she was shot in Tucson.

Cutting congressional pay 5 percent would save $4.7 million.

"Our salaries should not be exempt [from overall House cuts]," Giffords said at the time. "Members of Congress must set an example, and there's no better way to do that than by cutting our salaries."

Maybe Congress can honor her by passing her bill.

See? A glimmer. What do you think the chances are?

In Pennsylvania, some state lawmakers say they won't take an annual pay raise that, as in Congress, comes automatically regardless of performance.

(Congress voted to forego its raise this year; the Legislature, of course, did not.)

The new hike brings state rank-and-file members' base pay to $79,623. Floor leaders get $115,364.

The median household income in Pennsylvania is $50,840.

As in Washington, there are Harrisburg proposals to bring common sense to salary issues.

Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, twice introduced bills to suspend automatic raises and says she'll do so again.

Stopping this year's automatic raise, which also goes to 1,000 judges and other state officials, would save $3 million.

I hope you notice these less-pay plans are from women - supporting my frequent calls for more women in elective office, especially in Pennsylvania.

I hope you notice the proposals come from relative newcomers - both Giffords and Quinn were elected in 2006 - and not from anyone in "leadership."

The automatic-pay-raise issue is particularly galling given no cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients for the past two years.

Constituents, even constituents known as a group that votes, go without while their representatives continue to collect more.

And even those who say they won't take the raise benefit from it; it's viewed as legal salary and therefore used to calculate pensions.

Speaking of pensions, I hope you saw what some outgoing lawmakers are eligible for: former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, $330,915 a year; former Philly Democratic Rep. Frank Oliver, $235,686 a year; former Philly Republican Rep. John Perzel, $104,700 a year.

Sound reasonable?

Take some solace in the fact that Perzel, who's charged with corruption, and Mellow, who's under investigation, forfeit their pensions if convicted.

As for Oliver, who just retired after 37 years in the House, well, he was quoted in Harrisburg's Patriot-News saying, "If anybody wants to criticize me, I'd tell 'em where to go."

My fading hope isn't due solely to the me-first, cash-grab attitudes so prevalent among so many of our "servants." It's also due to lack of performance.

In Washington, the reform-minded House reads the Constitution and pledges to overturn health-care reform knowing the Senate won't concur.

In Harrisburg, the reform-minded are fighting over requiring members to actually verify how they spend tax dollars on themselves; they can't agree on ending automatic unvouchered personal expenses of $160 per day.

So, a new Congress, a new Legislature, but no real reason to fan the flames of hope for, you know, some common sense.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer. Read Baer's blog at www.philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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