Should Members of Congress Make More Than Their $174K?

(Bill Clark/Getty Images)

Most Americans would probably look at someone making $174,000 a year and imagine how a more lucrative income could change their own lives.

Bigger home, nicer car, perhaps another child, private education, some international travel. Endless possibility.

But even that much money, which goes to just the top 5 percent of U.S. wage earners and happens to be the base payment to members of Congress each year, is not enough, according to one retiring House Democrat.

Rep. Jim Moran, a 24-year veteran of Congress representing Northern Virginia just outside the beltway, raised a provocative point during a subcommittee meeting Thursday when he bemoaned a three-year congressional pay freeze and proposed a change.

He expanded on the point today.

"There are too many members of Congress who are having to sleep in their offices, making too much sacrifice," Moran, D-Virginia, told radio station WTOP.

While the challenge may be particularly acute for members who maintain two residences - one back home in their districts and another in Washington - Moran says he "can't even afford" his own home across the Potomac River on his $174,000 salary as a member of the House.

But some D.C-area residents believe $174,000 would provide more than enough to cover their bills.

"I could make it on that," said Frank, a Manassas, Va., voter who called in today to "The Chris Plante Show" on WMAL-AM/FM in Washington. "Most of us in America can't afford the way we're living because of [Congress]."

But congressman Moran argues that if the salaries of congressmen and women are not increased, only millionaires will run "because the pay that they get won't matter to them."

"That was not the original intent of the founding fathers," he said.

Chris, a WMAL caller from Bethesda, Md., told the station he sympathizes with Moran's concerns that top-shelf talent will stay away from public office unless salaries are raised.

"If you want to pull from Wall Street or if you want to pull from Silicon Valley, you'd better throw them a few bones, not just make it about sneaking money under the table in backroom deals," he said.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a five-term Democrat from Missouri, told ABC News that despite the public's overarching hatred for Congress, changing the salary would not affect the field of candidates interested in serving.

"I don't think [the salary] impacts the crop of candidates who file for office," Cleaver, D-Mo., said. "I mean, if this is the only institution that says those who participate here shall not receive pay raises, I think it speaks to the esteem or lack thereof the public has for us."

Rep. Joe Barton, a 15-term Republican who claims to live paycheck to paycheck, said he believes members of Congress and their staff should be allowed to have an annual cost of living increase "when the inflation rate triggers it."

"I don't think we should continue to have increases when the rest of the country is in recession or we haven't had a depression in a long time, but on the other hand, over time you do need to get these inflationary adjustments," Barton, R-Texas, said. "Some members are well-to-do before they get here but the whole point of the People's House is to let the average person have a chance to be a representative.

"We don't deserve to make CEO-style salaries but, on the other hand, each of us represents 700,000 people," he added. "It's a big responsibility."

Cleaver said he pays almost $2,000 rent per month - double his mortgage on his home in Kansas city - and would "never hesitate" to support a vote to give members a pay raise.

"I'm not loony-tune but, you know I think something is reasonable and the budget committee could determine what is reasonable," he said. "A lot of it is brought on ourselves by the conduct we've displayed, but they play to the crowd because they know that those people are out there. You know, 'Those scumbags don't need a raise.' And that kind of thing, and that's what I think is probably more despicable."

Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who has served since 1965 and is positioned to take over as the dean of the House in January, said that despite serving for almost 50 years, he still rents a second residence in Washington.

"Nobody's getting rich off the current salary income that's coming in now," Conyers joked. "There's no question about that."