It should be officially claimed that your government officials have screwed us over. http://www.townhall.com/columnists/jeffjacoby/jj20040105.shtml Another January, another Congressional pay raise Jeff Jacoby A happy new year? For US senators and representatives, it certainly is: As of Jan. 1, their salary is $158,100 -- the highest ever and an increase of $3,400 over the amount they collected last year. Congress is notorious for procrastination, and the tally of unfinished business on Capitol Hill is a long one. But no one can accuse the legislative branch of dragging its heels when it comes to congressional pay. Appropriations bills may gather dust, judicial nominations may languish, but members of Congress are johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to their own salaries. The most recent raise is only the latest in an ongoing series: On Jan. 1, 2003, they took a raise of $4,700. On Jan. 1, 2002, they took a raise of $4,900. On Jan. 1, 2001, they took a raise of $3,800. On Jan. 1, 2000, they took a raise of $4,600. On Jan. 1, 1998, they took a raise of $3,100. That comes to six raises totaling $24,500 since January 1998. And why does Congress feel it deserves them? Ah, well, that's hard to say. Congress isn't talking. Few Americans have the power to award themselves a bigger paycheck at will; fewer still can do so and charge it to the public treasury. The Constitution grants members of Congress the privilege of paying themselves with taxpayers' money, but with that privilege comes a moral obligation to operate in the sunshine. Or so it used to be understood. Once upon a time, senators and representatives knew that before they could raise their salaries, they had to hold hearings and take a vote. Those votes could be politically uncomfortable, and the public's reaction had to be taken into account. Not surprisingly, Congress tended to go long stretches between pay raises, and lawmakers knew better than to hike their pay during a recession. (On a few occasions, they even reduced their pay.) But Congress has changed the rules. Under the system now in place, House and Senate members automatically get a pay raise every year. The only way *not* to get the raise is to pass an amendment blocking it, and parliamentary hurdles make that difficult to accomplish. Upshot: a congressional paycheck that grows by thousands of dollars a year -- with no hearings, no debate, no media coverage, no public explanations. Above all, no embarrassing votes -- not unless some spoilsport with more integrity than avarice insists on offering a blocking amendment. One of the very few such spoilsports is Senator Russell Feingold, a liberal Wisconsin Democrat who for several years has introduced an amendment to stop the pay raise, and each time has seen his amendment tabled -- i.e., killed without being debated and voted on -- by a lopsided Senate majority. "I object to the process," he said during a phone conversation last week. "This automatic, stealth pay-raise system is absolutely wrong. Especially now, when we're running the biggest deficits in US history, when so many people are out of work -- I find it startling that Congress would feel comfortable voting itself a pay raise." And what kind of reaction does he get from his colleagues when he offers his amendment? "It's not my most popular moment," Feingold concedes. "I get the coldest stares." Some senators try to reason with him. "They tell me about their kids' tuition. Or they say, 'Don't you think you're worth more money?' " He tells them that if they think they deserve an increase, they should be willing to vote for one. Feingold puts his own money where his mouth is, refusing any increase in pay during each six-year senatorial term. Though he is perhaps the least affluent member of the Senate, he has returned more than $50,000 to the Treasury over the past 11 years. Meanwhile, multimillionaire senators like Ted Kennedy, Jon Corzine, and Majority Leader Bill Frist vote to table Feingold's amendment and preserve the annual stealth pay raise. Some members of Congress claim they are underpaid; even at $158,100, they say, the salary of a federal lawmaker is well below what many people in the private sector make. Maybe it is. But that doesn't stop hundreds of willing candidates -- including every incumbent senator and representative -- from running for Congress at the existing salary. Every member of Congress is free to walk away from Capitol Hill to earn more money in the private sector. Yet virtually all of them choose to run for re-election. Maybe that's because most of them wouldn't be able to do better in a private-sector job. Maybe it's because the power and influence that come with holding federal office more than make up for any loss of income. Or maybe it's because the perks of office are so comfortable: In addition to their salary, members of Congress get (among other benefits) large staffs, free office space in their district and in Washington, numerous round trips home each year, free foreign travel, largely unlimited free postage, use of the lavish congressional gyms, and a pension far more lucrative than almost any private-sector plan. So yes, by all means, wish your senators and congressman a happy new year. As usual, they're having one. and this one as well. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3882629/ WASHINGTON - The Labor Department is giving employers tips on how to avoid paying overtime to some of the 1.3 million low-income workers who would become eligible under new rules expected to be finalized early this year. The department's advice comes even as it touts the $895 million in increased wages that it says those workers would be guaranteed from the reforms. Among the options for employers: cut workers' hourly wages and add the overtime to equal the original salary, or raise salaries to the new $22,100 annual threshold, making them ineligible. The department says it is merely listing well-known choices available to employers, even under current law. "We're not saying anybody should do any of this," said Labor Department spokesman Ed Frank. New overtime regulations were proposed in March after employers complained they were being saddled with costly lawsuits filed by workers who claimed they were unfairly being denied overtime. But the regulations themselves have stirred controversy over how many workers would be stripped of their right to overtime pay. The issue is being seized by Democrats in their attempt to win back Congress and the White House. A final rule, revising the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, is expected to be issued in March. The act defines the types of jobs that qualify workers for time-and-a-half if they work more than 40 hours a week. Overtime pay for the 1.3 million low-income workers has been a selling tool for the Bush administration in trying to ease concerns in Congress about millions of higher-paid workers becoming ineligible. But the Labor Department, in a summary of its plan published last March, suggests how employers can avoid paying overtime to those newly eligible low-income workers. "Most employers affected by the proposed rule would be expected to choose the most cost-effective compensation adjustment method," the department said. For some companies, the financial impact could be "near zero," it said. Employers' options include: Adhering to a 40-hour work week. Raising workers' salaries to a new $22,100 annual threshold, making them ineligible for overtime pay. If employers raise a worker's salary "it means they're getting a raise that's not a way around overtime," Frank said. The current threshold is $8,060 per year. Making a "payroll adjustment" that results "in virtually no, or only a minimal increase in labor costs," the department said. Workers' annual pay would be converted to an hourly rate and cut, with overtime added in to equal the former salary. Essentially, employees would be working more hours for the same pay. The department does not view the "payroll adjustment" option as a pay cut. Rather, it allows the employer to "maintain the pay at the current level" with the new overtime requirements, said the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division administrator, Tammy McCutchen, an architect of the plan. Labor unions criticized the employer options. Mark Wilson, a lawyer for the Communications Workers of America who specializes in overtime issues, said the Bush administration was protecting the interests of employers at the expense of workers. "This plan speaks volumes about the real motives of this so-called family-friendly administration," Wilson said. He says cutting workers' pay to avoid overtime is illegal, based on a 1945 Supreme Court ruling and a 1986 memo by the Labor Department under President Reagan. But McCutchen disagreed. If changes were made week to week to avoid overtime, they would be illegal. A one-time change is not, she said. "We had a lot of lawyers look at this rule. We would not have put that in there if we thought it was illegal," she said. "Unless you have a contract, there is no legal rule ... prohibiting an employer from either raising your salary or cutting your salary," she said, adding, "We do not anticipate employers will cut people's pay." The final plan does not require approval from Congress. That hasn't stopped Democrats and some Republicans from trying to block the rule, thus far unsuccessfully, out of fear that millions of workers would become ineligible for overtime. Department officials say about 644,000 higher-paid workers would lose their overtime eligibility. But the proposal says 1.5 million to 2.7 million workers "will be more readily identified as exempt" from overtime requirements. Labor unions claim the figure is about 8 million. The Labor Department is aware of lawmakers' concerns has read tens of thousands of comments about the proposal, McCutchen said. "We understand what the public concerns are and we're going to be doing our best to address them," she said. "It's important to allow us to finish that process so we can back up our words with some good-faith action."