Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 9:18 pm | Fair 63º

 
 
 

Harris Sherline: Social Security, COLAs and Congress

In their imperial Congress, lawmakers put themselves well above and beyond their constituents

If Social Security checks aren’t going to be increased for two years because the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) has not gone up, does that mean members of Congress will forgo their annual pay raises as well?

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

I’m kidding, right?

Well, only partially. Since annual increases in lawmakers’ compensation are also pegged to COLA, will they still be entitled to a pay raise in 2010 if the COLA has not increased? If they do get a raise, should they voluntarily decline it?

Fat chance! Forgive me if my cynicism is showing, but at my age I’ve lost most of my idealism.

Consider the following note I received from a woman whose sole source of income is Social Security: “I am so upset that we are not getting a raise pursuant to the cost-of-living increase for Social Security. I am on Social Security Disability and was looking forward to the small increase I would be receiving this year. You are so correct — the prices of food and all other items we need to purchase are frightening. Why pick on us, the ones who need this money the most? I am shocked they are doing this to us, the vulnerable.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for her. Her Social Security income is normally increased every year by COLA, but since it has not gone up, her Social Security checks will not change for the next two years. Actually, they are likely to go down because, chances are, her Medicare insurance payments are deducted from her Social Security checks, and since the Medicare insurance rates will continue to increase, her net checks will be smaller.

Members of Congress receive an automatic COLA every year unless they vote not to accept it. It will be interesting to see if they are treated the same way as Social Security beneficiaries — that is, if their pay also is not increased in 2010 because the cost-of-living index has not gone up.

Looking at the situation another way, historical data on annual congressional compensation shows that it has grown to $174,000 today from $5,000 in 1900, an increase of 3,380 percent, or 31.2 percent a year compared with the Consumer Price Index, which grew 2,085 percent, or 21.9 percent per year, from 1913 to 2008. In short, congressional pay has increased an average of about 10 percent more per year than the average annual increase in consumer prices.

While the compensation of our “public servants” has increased an average of more than 31 percent a year since 1900, the value of the dollar also has depreciated to the point that it now costs $26.45 to buy goods and/or services that cost only $1 in 1900.

Is that the kind of track record that justifies the size of the increases in compensation that lawmakers have given themselves?

In addition to receiving wages that generally exceed those of most of their constituents, lawmakers also receive generous perks and participate in a retirement plan that is generally superior to anything that’s available to most of the people they represent who work in the private sector.

The argument that unless lawmakers’ compensation is competitive with the private sector it is not possible to attract the most qualified people to public service is also a myth.

In May 1999, Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, stated in testimony before the House of Representatives that a 1996 Roll Call study found that “all but six of the 73 newly elected House members will receive large pay hikes when they take office, compared with their previous employment. ... During the last 10 years, House members gave themselves five pay raises, senators six. Congressional salaries grew by $42,900 — more than $15,000 above inflation.”

It’s clear that, by any standard, most politicians benefit from an increase in earnings when they are elected to Congress.

Our elected representatives were originally supposed to spend only a brief part of their careers in public service and then return to their lives at home and live thereafter under the laws they passed while they were in office. Instead, over time, they have made politics their profession.

As far as I’m concerned, most politicians are primarily interested in their own careers, and extending the length of their stay in the nation’s capital for as long as possible seems to have become their principal focus.

As Mark Twain said, “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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