Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#100, August 15, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Did you get a $4,000 raise in 1999? Congress did. In fact, since 1989, they've gotten five pay raises, taking their salaries from $89,500 a year to $141,300 a year. And with the cost of living going up, they're planning to give themselves another $4,000 pay raise this year. *

You understand this isn't just a little "to Congress, from Congress, with love" sort of gift. No, this is about merit pay. Just ask Rep. Dick Armey who says "Members of Congress work hard. And they, quite frankly, very well earrn the income they receive."

Right on, Dick! Congress works hard, doing... well, I'm sure it will come to me if I think about it for a bit.

Oh, yes. The Constitution says their job is to appropriate money to run the government. And who knows, this year they might even do that before the government officially runs out of money on October 1. They haven't met that deadline any time in the past six years, to be sure, but this year they'd like to finish up on time so they can go back home to campaign - even the ones who swore in 1994 that they'd term limit themselves and quit after six years. After all, they can't keep serving the public if they don't get re-elected.

The Constitution also says they're supposed to pass laws for the public good. Which means Congress not only gets to decide what its own work is worth, it gets to decide what minimum wage workers are worth, too. Which is, er, less.

Congress did raise the minimum wage in 1996 to $5.15 an hour ($10,712 a year). They're now considering raising it to $6.15 an hour, spread out over two years. Why, two years from now, minimum wage workers might be only $1,000 short of reaching today's official poverty line for a family of three. **

That is, if the bill passes. Since it's attached to a really nice set of tax breaks for small business owners, which President Clinton won't care for, and to provisions for easing the embargo against Cuba, which some Republicans won't much like, it might not.

Not that Congress will worry much if it doesn't pass - many of them agree with the New York Times that "much of the gain from a higher minimum would go into surfboards and stereos."

Wrong. Most minimum wage workers - 71 percent of them - are adults, a third of them supporting families. Of these, 63 percent have total family incomes below $25,000. Many of them are single mothers who have left welfare.

Nor are we talking solely about workers serving Big Macs. We're talking about child care workers, hospital janitors, and attendants for the elderly. We're talking about baggage handlers, short order cooks, motel maids, and the slaughterhouse workers who turn cows into beef.

This is work we'd like to see done right, in fact, because it affects us. We want our meat to be safe, and our kids in day care to be well cared for. We want our hospitals to be clean, especially considering how many patients die every year from hospital-acquired infections.

These jobs, and the jobs pegged to $1 or $2 above the minimum wage, are not fun jobs. They're the kind of grimy, physically demanding hard work most of us would prefer somebody else to do.

Just not, according to Dick Armey, as hard as spending your days investigating cabinet members, your lunches listening to lobbyists at fine French restaurants, and your evenings making speeches in front of C-SPAN cameras.

That's why I have a modest proposal: do what they did in Chicago when Mayor Daley asked for a raise: they shamed him into pairing his salary increase with a guaranteed living wage for the employees of city contractors.

We could insist that Congress could only get a raise if it raised the minimum wage at the same time. Either hard-working, poorly-paid people would get a somewhat better deal, or Congress wold have to figure out how to keep getting by on $141,000 a year. Sounds good to me.

* Update: As of 2011, their salary is $174,000 per year

** Effective 2009, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour - $15,600. The official US poverty level for a family of 3 in 2011 is $18,310

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