Who decides how much to pay Representatives and Senators?
Congress does, and has done so since the Constitution was ratified in 1787. Article I, Section 6 of the US Constitution states:
“The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.”
This means that Congress is responsible for adopting legislation, which must be signed by the President to become law, that determines its salary. It took Congress more than 25 years to pass its first increase, which raised the daily pay from $6 to $8 in 1818. It was not until 1856 that Congress decided on a fixed yearly salary instead of the original per diem system. Since 1975 Congress has received automatic cost of living adjustments to their salary equal to the percent increase of other Federal employees. The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 made some further adjustments to this system and established the guidelines currently in use. The last time Congress actually voted to raise its salary occurred in 1991 when the Senate’s pay was raised to the same level as the the House of Representatives.
The most recent change to our Constitution, the 27th Amendment, also deals with the issue of Congressional salaries. The Amendment states:
“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
This amendment was proposed in 1789 but was mostly forgotten until the states slowly began ratify it, with enough states finally deciding to make it an official part of the Constitution in 1992. It has the effect of holding Representatives directly accountable to their constituents before they are able to receive the benefits of any new legislation on their salary, although current statutes essentially did the same thing. Federal Court rulings have decided that the annual cost-of-living adjustments do not fall under this amendment because the law establishing them does not require new legislation for each yearly increase.
Want to learn more about Congress? Sign up for the Congressional Institute’s e-newsletter!