Ask The Advisor: Congress Salaries and COLA

Ask The Advisor: Congress Salaries and COLA

How Much Did Congress Earn Last Year?

Q: Can you tell me how much members of Congress earned last year after shutting down the government? Did they receive a COLA for 2014? I've heard conflicting stories.

A: Members of Congress earned a salary of $174,000 in 2013, but they received no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2014 — their pay stayed the same. In fact, with unemployment at record highs, and both inflation and public approval ratings at all time lows, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have decided to give up pay increases five years in a row. Members last received a pay raise in 2009.

Even so, there are far longer periods in the past when Congress went without any pay increases for years. The longest began on December 3, 1817, the last day in the term of our nation's fourth President (James Madison). It didn't end until 38 years later, on December 2, 1855, when Franklin Pierce, our nation's 14th President, was still in office.

Unlike most Americans, Congress is required by law to determine its own pay, including raises, referred to as COLAs. From 1789 until 1989, Congress set its pay statutorily. This meant lawmakers had to publicly vote for their own raise. Consequently, since the U.S. press and voters generally have acerbic reactions to taxpayer-funded pay increases, Congressional pay raises tended to be few and far between. But by 1989 that all changed. Congress came up with the perfect way to raise its pay every year, without drawing a lot of embarrassing public scrutiny.

Under current law, Congress literally doesn't have to do anything to earn a pay increase. In fact, it's by doing nothing at all that lawmakers get one. They receive an automatic raise every year, unless they take special action to deny themselves a pay raise. Consequently, Congressional salaries soared in the '90's and from 2000 through 2009 when Congress received a pay raise every single year. Thus, for our current Congress that has agreed on so little else, the fact that they have successfully managed to freeze their own pay five times in a row says a lot about their level of concern over voter backlash.

Congressional COLAs have often been considerably higher than the COLA seniors receive. The Congressional boost is based on the increase in the average wage index that in most years tends to grow more quickly than the consumer price index used to calculate senior benefit boosts.

Click here see a chart of Congressional salaries since 1789.

Sources: Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables, Ida Brudnick, Congressional Research Service, November 4, 2013.