A Democratic congressman who still owes millions of dollars in legal bills racked up while fighting corruption allegations said on Monday that members of Congress need a raise in order to cope with the District of Columbia’s rising cost of living.
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.) said at a Monday Rules Committee hearing that members of Congress, who make an average of $174,000 per year, "aren’t being paid properly."
"Members deserve to be paid, staff deserves to be paid and the cost of living here is causing serious problems for people who are not wealthy to serve in this institution," he said.
Observers scoffed at the comments, saying congressional pay and benefits are quite generous.
"Aside from access to subsidized travel, gym memberships, haircuts, and the like, congressmen have a retirement plan which averages about $40,000 a year for retired members," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog.
The average D.C. resident makes just under $60,000 per year, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Unlike most D.C. residents, members of Congress "have an automatic cost-of-living raise each year unless there is a vote to decline the raise," Boehm noted.
Hastings is far from wealthy: he has the second-lowest net worth of any member of Congress. However, his own financial troubles may have less to do with the cost of living in D.C. than the exorbitant legal fees he amassed since the 1980s.
According to his most recent personal financial disclosures, Hastings is as much as $7.5 million in debt. With the exception of a 2009 mortgage on which he owes up to $250,000, all of those debts are legal fees stemming from decades-old corruption charges.
In 1981, two years after President Jimmy Carter appointed Hastings to the federal bench, the FBI conducted a sting operation designed to catch Hastings soliciting bribes in exchange for reducing racketeering sentences for two brothers convicted of ripping off a union pension fund.
FBI agents busted a friend of Hastings’, D.C. lawyer William Borders, when he accepted a $150,000 bribe, allegedly on Hastings’ behalf, in exchange for lenient sentencing.
Hastings was acquitted of subsequent bribery charges, while Borders was convicted and later given a full pardon by President Bill Clinton. However, a subsequent investigation by a federal court of appeals found that Hastings was probably complicit in the scheme, his acquittal notwithstanding.
The report also concluded that Hastings had lied under oath during the trial. The House took up impeachment proceedings against Hastings, leveling 17 charges against him.
A Senate investigative panel voted to convict him on six of them, including charges that he had "engaged in a corrupt conspiracy to obtain $150,000 from defendants in United States v. Romano, a case tried before Judge Hastings, in return for the imposition of sentences which would not require incarceration of the defendants."
Hastings became the sixth federal official in U.S. history to be removed by impeachment.
Hastings sued, claiming that he was improperly convicted by a Senate committee, as opposed to the full Senate. A federal judge agreed, striking down the conviction, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 1993.
All of those legal proceedings resulted in massive fees for Hastings. In 2013, according to financial disclosures, his legal bills were somewhere between $2.1 million and $7.3 million.
"Most congressman don't complain about their sweet deal since they voted for it," Boehm said. "Of course, most congressmen don't have millions in past due legal bills from defending against corruption charges."
Hastings’ office did not respond to a request for comment.