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House incumbents don't feel your pain

Whatever they are telling you in the last eight days of the campaign, those House incumbents strolling to their inevitable re-election are not feeling your pain. The recession is for you, but not for them.

Things were never better for members of the permanent incumbency. Surveys say they are piling up more private wealth than ever before. Campaign gifts from powerful special interests are setting records, and they are about to receive another pay raise.

Congress gave itself a pay raise this session, bringing salaries to $169,300 a year. Because the Democratic leadership took no action to block it, they are due for another pay raise in January, bringing their salaries to $174,040 a year.

This extra $4,740 will roll in despite congressional approval ratings at historical lows, and despite the overwhelming public disapproval of the massive bailout they handed powerful banking interests -- handouts that are secret.

"Lawmakers are probably the only class of Americans who don't have to worry about their jobs or their pay," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.

The congressional approval rating has been well below 20 percent for months, and lower than President Bush's.

A nationwide poll conducted by Zogby International for Judicial Watch showed 81.7 percent believe that political corruption here, including Congress, played a role in the current financial meltdown.

Yet more than 95 percent of the House incumbents running are favored to win. That is because of the 4-to-1 advantage they have over challengers in extorting money from big donors, their huge congressional staffs whom they use as campaign workers at taxpayer expense, $1.4 million they get for free mail to constituents and the fact that incumbents are paid while they are campaigning.

So eager are big contributors to shovel out money to any incumbent that they already have given $43.3 million to the 20 members of the House and Senate listed as the 20 "most corrupt" by the nonpartisan Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Two of "the most corrupt" are New Yorkers, Reps. Charles B. Rangel, D-Manhattan, and Vito Fossella, R-Staten Island.

Rangel, who is effectively unopposed, raised $4.8 million; Fossella, who retired when it was disclosed he had a secret second family in Virginia, pulled in $1 million.

Fossella and three others, who actually are facing trial on corruption-related charges, raised $4.5 million from donors who want the government to look the other way on a host of issues ranging from fuel price gouging, food safety and dumping foreign goods, to bank and securities cheating.

With members expecting yet another pay raise, not even a recession will dampen their ardor for bigger expense accounts. These office accounts increase at an average rate of 4 percent a year. But not for all our folks.

In our region, Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, sets the pace. According to the nonpartisan tracking group, LegiStorm, aides' salaries in Higgins office cost $984,000 in 2007. That represents a 59 percent increase in spending over two years. Higgins' chief of staff, Chuck Eaton, made $136,000 last year, enjoying a 10 percent raise from 2006. Eaton's salary is about the same as that of Tamara Luzzatto, chief of staff to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Luzzatto's pay has been flat for four years.

Runner up to Higgins as the big spender was Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, who is retiring. His aides' salaries cost $852,000 in 2007. That's a 12 percent jump in two years.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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