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There are few things that inspire as much popular outrage as examples of politicians behaving hypocritically. That’s why a recent Facebook post packed such a punch.
"Every single one of the 41 Republican senators who just blocked a raise in the minimum wage will receive a $2,800 cost-of-living adjustment on January 1, 2015," said the meme, which was posted by the creators of the "Raise the Minimum Wage" Facebook page. That page has attracted almost 132,000 supporters, and the meme, when it was posted on May 1, 2014, drew 1,984 likes.
But is the meme’s claim accurate? Not exactly.
Since passage of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, congressional pay raises are calculated by a formula that involves changes in private-sector wages and salaries, according to the Congressional Research Service. The annual pay hike automatically goes into effect unless Congress either votes to reject the adjustment or votes to change the amount.
However, lawmakers have often been loath to raise their own pay. Even though the 1989 law makes it easier for politicians to get a raise without having to affirmatively vote for one, it hasn’t led to raises year after year.
In fact, almost half the time, lawmakers have gone out of their way to reject the automatic pay raise. According to CRS, lawmakers let their pay be raised 13 times (those scheduled for January 1991, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009) and denied raises 11 times (those scheduled for January 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014).
That means the last time lawmakers let an impending raise stand was for the one scheduled for January 2009. That was when George W. Bush was president and the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. At that time, the basic congressional salary went from $169,300 to $174,000, its current level.
Since then, for five years running, Congress has passed language forgoing a pay raise.
The CRS report confirms the numbers cited in the meme -- the maximum potential January 2015 pay adjustment would be 1.6 percent, or $2,800, an amount established by calculations made in January 2014.
But the recent history of pay-raise rejections provides a crucial asterisk to the meme’s claim.
If Congress refuses to act, lawmakers will get the raise specified in the meme -- but for the past five years, Congress has acted to reject the increase, and this year, there are solid reasons why lawmakers would want to avoid a raise again.
"The economy, while showing signs of recovery, is still shaky, especially when it comes to steady private-sector job creation," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, which has long tracked congressional pay and benefits. "Furthermore, it would be politically suicidal for Congress to debate, much less affirm, the raise before the November election."
Sepp added, though, that it’s possible that lawmakers could go into a lame-duck session after the election. Then, he said, "the political pressure is off to act like they feel their constituents' pain, and who knows what could happen? Opponents of allowing the raise to take effect might introduce a provision blocking the pay increase, only to be outmaneuvered in the rush to approve final business for the year."
In other words, a hike by january 2015 is far from the slam dunk the meme suggests.
The pro-minimum-wage group said in a Facebook meme that "every single one of the 41 Republican senators who just blocked a raise in the minimum wage will receive a $2,800 cost-of-living adjustment on January 1, 2015."
That is what would happen if Congress fails to affirmatively reject a raise. But there is hardly a guarantee that lawmakers would simply go along with this pay hike. Accepting a pay raise is so politically unpopular that Congress has rejected such an increase for five years running. The difference between "will receive" a raise and "could receive" a raise is significant enough for us to rate this claim Half True.
Raise the Minimum Wage Facebook page, meme, May 1, 2014
Congressional Research Service, "Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables," Feb. 3, 2014
Email interview with Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, May 6, 2014
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