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We get what we pay for in public life

Newsnote from the Associated Press: Congress members in 2009 will receive salaries of $174,000, a boost of $4,700 over the salary they have had since January 2008.

That 2.7 percent increase is mirrored by similar raises for associate justices of the Supreme Court, who will see their pay go from $208,100 to $212,800 and Chief Justice John Roberts, whose pay will rise to $222,100 from $217,400.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will also see a pay boost from $217,400 last year to $222,100, the same as Chief Justice Roberts. The majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and Senate president pro tempore Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., will get increases from $188,100 to $192,800.

Dick Cheney, in his last year as vice president, will receive $225,700, up from $221,000. President Bush's salary of $400,000 is unchanged.

In 2006, Democrats, newly elected to the majority, had vowed to block an increase in their paychecks until Congress raised the minimum wage. With the minimum wage increase accomplished, House Democratic leaders joined with their Republican counterparts to oppose a procedural vote to bring the COLA issue to the floor, leaving the way clear for their automatic raise.

The congressional COLA is linked, under a complicated formula, to the cost-of-living increase awarded civil servants. As part of a 1989 ethics bill, Congress gave up its ability to accept pay for speeches and made annual cost-of-living pay increases automatic unless lawmakers voted otherwise.

The blogosphere was alive this week with another new complaint: The news that members of Congress would receive a pay raise based on a predetermined cost-of-living (COLA) of 2.7 percent has become an instant source of peevish kvetching.

Their big complaint: how dare these public officeholders accept a raise, when the country is struggling through the current recession. The bilious crowd who live their vicarious lives online were huffing and puffing, most of them concluding that politicians should not be paid anything at all. Throw the bums out, and let's get people in there who will work for -- for what? Nothing? Peanuts? A dollar a year?

We thought that dubious debate over pay for public officials was long since put to rest. Think about it, and you will recognize that there are two choices for people who make their livings while holding public office. One is for these jobs to be reserved only for people who have significant wealth - people like Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, or John Kerry, our own junior Senator whose wife is the heir to a fortune. Such folks do not need to work for a living.

The alternative is to make the public sector available for people who must make do with their salaries in the job. Vice President-elect Biden is an example of a working class politician with no other job, no other income, who was able to commute daily by train from his job in Congress to his home in Delaware. As he leaves the Senate to take up his new role, the new Vice President receives a salary bump of $51,700 - less than $1000 a week over his Senate salary!

Access to home and family is not so easy for the greater majority of members of Congress, almost all of whom must maintain two residences, and must pay the expense of travel back and forth to their home state and local offices. The bloggers should ask themselves just what they would accept as proper pay should one of them ever be elected to public office.

So here's a vote in favor of the COLA pay raise for Congress. Let's all remember that, in elective office as in life in general, you get what you pay for.

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