A YEAR AGO THIS WEEK, just two days before being shot by a deranged assailant in her district, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords introduced legislation to cut congressional salaries by 5 percent, from $174,000 to $165,300.
Needless to say, the bill didn't become law -- the last time the House and Senate actually trimmed their members' pay was during the Great Depression. Yet there are few things Congress could do that would be more certain to win public esteem. In a national poll commissioned last month by The Hill, a Washington newspaper, 67 percent of voters said lawmakers should be paid less. With Congress's approval rating barely above single digits, and with so many Americans feeling the sting of a weak economy, you might think support for a modest one-time pay cut would be a no brainer -- especially since congressional pay has been hiked 10 times since 1998.
Yet legislation to curb Congress's outlandish pay and perks rarely gets far on Capitol Hill. The relatively few members willing to make noise about the issue are not rewarded with the love of their colleagues. Former Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin once told me he got "the coldest stares" whenever he introduced legislation to block congressional pay hikes from kicking in automatically. Sometimes his colleagues would try to change his mind, Feingold said. "They tell me about their kids' tuition. Or they say, 'Don't you think you're worth more money?'" He would respond that if they thought they deserved an increase, they should be willing to openly vote for one.
Feingold left Congress last year, but other lawmakers have taken up the cause. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado -- who is as conservative a Republican as Feingold was a liberal Democrat -- last month introduced a bill that would ban "stealth" pay hikes by preventing any congressional pay raise from taking effect unless members of Congress first cast a recorded vote. Another Coffman bill would cut congressional salaries by 10 percent.