Oklahoma senator says House doesn’t deserve a COLA adjustment because its bills go nowhere

Low pay for lawmakers can be a factor in political corruption.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) dismissed calls to give members of Congress a cost of living adjustment because he doesn't think they deserve a "merit bonus."
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) dismissed calls to give members of Congress a cost of living adjustment because he doesn't think they deserve a "merit bonus." (Photo credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) took aim at an effort by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other lawmakers to allow a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for members of Congress for the first time in a decade, saying that the House doesn’t deserve a “merit bonus” for their “inactivity.”

Lankford is part of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Republican majority in the Senate, which has helped block any legislative action whatsoever on dozens of important bills that lawmakers in the House have passed, and turned the chamber into what Senate Democrats have taken to calling a “legislative graveyard.” But he said on Tuesday that the House does not deserve more pay because they have not enacted enough legislation.

Most members of the House of Representatives earn $174,000 each year — a figure that has been unchanged since 2009. Since the 27th Amendment prevents Congress from raising its own salary during its term, lawmakers adopted a law in 1989 automatically adjusting member’s salaries to keep up with the cost of living annually.

But with low public approval ratings, members often vote to waive that pay raise — a move that may be politically wise, but which has helped keep those who are not independently wealthy out of Congress. Conservative estimates find that the average net worth of a member of Congress is over $1 million.


Ocasio-Cortez is the rare member of Congress who has been very public about the financial challenges this job has presented for her. A former service industry worker who left her job to run for Congress and had no income between her November 2018 victory and her January 2019 inauguration, she found it virtually impossible to even get an apartment in Washington, D.C.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, she noted that the failure of Congressional pay to keep pace is bad for democracy. “What this does is punish members who rely on a straight salary, and reward those who rely on money loopholes and other forms of self-dealing. For example, it incentivizes the horrible kinds of legislative looting we saw in the GOP tax scam bill,” she argued, noting that it “only increases pressure on them to keep dark money loopholes open,” making campaign finance reform harder.

With a record number of women, people of color, and Millennials in the 116th Congress — three underrepresented demographics which also typically earn significantly less pay than their white, male, Baby Boomer counterparts over their careers — the problem is only growing more acute.

In a rare case of bipartisanship, both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) support letting the 2.6% (roughly $4,500) cost of living adjustment happen in January. But many vulnerable first-term lawmakers, fearing the optics, have pushed to again waive the increase this week.


And on Fox Business, Lankford attacked Ocasio-Cortez and others for wanting more pay.  “Quite frankly, I don’t see anything coming out of the House right now that I look at and say that’s been so successful that the American people would want to give them a merit bonus this year based on what’s coming out of the House,” he argued.

“Let’s get us back to being productive again and then we should go back to the American people and say after holding on pay for a decade, let’s see if we deserve it again. But I think productivity deserves a response, not inactivity.”

While Lankford and the rest of the Republican majority in the Senate have refused to even bring up legislation for debate, the Democratic majority in the House has passed a wide array of important bills since taking control in January, to protect children of undocumented immigrants, bar discrimination against the LGBTQ community, require universal background checks for gun purchases, restore voting rights and campaign finance transparency, reduce the wage gap for female workers, burnish protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, and take action to mitigate climate change.

McConnell has called himself the “Grim Reaper,” vowing to obstruct all of these bills, and has instead used most of the Senate’s time to ram through President Donald Trump’s nominees for executive branch and judicial positions.


Even many Republican senators have begun complaining about the lack of legislation even being brought up for consideration in their chamber.

“We have completed almost 25% of the time allotted to this current Congress. And what have we done? Other than nominations, which are important — and I will come back to that — we have done nothing — zero, zilch, nada,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) complained in a May floor speech.

The House has passed 278 bills and resolutions this year. The Senate has passed 85 fewer, and almost none of those have been significant legislation.