Iraqi lawmakers have collected their $90,000 stipend, they're raking in $22,500 a month in salaries and allowances, and they're spending free nights in Baghdad's finest hotel — and they've only worked about 20 minutes this year, without passing a single law.
As the parliament prepares to hold what will be only its second session since the inconclusive election in March, lawmakers' lavish salaries and privileges are deepening resentment among Iraqis struggling to make ends meet and frustrated with the political deadlock.
The Shiite religious leadership — always tuned into sentiment among the Iraqi religious majority — has warned politicians against living the high life while ordinary people lack basic services, such as electricity and water.
In contrast, a mid-level government employee makes around $600 a month.
'They keep turning a blind eye to it'
In a mosque sermon Friday, an aide to Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged parliament to lower their salaries when they next meet.
"It's reasonable to request the lawmakers' salaries do not reach a lavish level," Ahmed al-Safi said. "This is a very important issue ... I do not know why they keep turning a blind eye to it."
Since June, when the lawmakers first met for 20 minutes, Iraq's second elected parliament since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime has failed to convene. Sharp divisions among political blocs have prevented the formation of a new government, and not a single law has been debated, much less passed.
Still, the 325 lawmakers collect their cash and perks.
"Iraqi politics has turned into business," said Wael Abdul-Latif, an independent Shiite politician and former lawmaker from Iraq's second largest city of Basra. "Many of the lawmakers would not even have bothered to run for the parliament" if salaries were not so high, he said.
The lawmakers' June meeting consisted of a Quranic reading, the playing of the national anthem and the swearing-in of new members. It produced one decision: to leave the session open but unattended — a technicality to allow more time to choose a new leadership since the election failed to give any party a ruling majority.
After the session, lawmakers collected the $90,000 stipend they are allotted for their four-year term to cover personal expenses.
Lawmakers are preparing to hold a second session, likely in the coming week, only because the Supreme Court last week ordered them to return to work.
Meanwhile, Iraqis who voted in large numbers in hope of strengthening their nascent democracy after years of authoritarian rule, war and sectarian violence have grown bitter at the politicians they chose to represent their interests.
"Instead of working hard and doing a good job, they are enjoying a paid vacation," said Jalal Mohammed, a retired clerk for the administrative council in the southern city of Basra. "I think the parliament members should only be paid if they do something useful for their country."
An Iraqi lawmaker's basic monthly salary is $10,000 — just $4,500 short of that of rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress. In addition, Iraqi MPs get a $12,500 monthly allowance for housing and security arrangements, for a combined total of $22,500.
Lawmakers pay only six percent of their $10,000 base salary in taxes. They also get to spend nights free at Baghdad's Rasheed Hotel in the relatively safe environment of the Green Zone, regardless of whether parliament is in session. They collect a $600 per diem when traveling inside or out of Iraq.
Once out of office, they get 80 percent of their salary monthly for life, and for eight years they can keep the diplomatic passports that they — and often their families — are issued.
In contrast, a high school teacher or a doctor in a public hospital each earns about $650 a month. A Baghdad taxi driver can make up to $700 in a good month. In the government — Iraq's biggest employer — a mid-level employee's basic salary rarely exceeds $600.
Lawmakers justify high salaries and benefits saying they risk their lives participating in the political process.
"We are exposed to violent incidents in our houses, on the streets, and even in the parliament," said Sheik Haidar al-Jorani, a Basra lawmaker with the prime minister's State of Law party. He said he had to repair his family home in Basra after it was damaged by a nearby bomb blast.
Moving around the country safely and frequent trips abroad cost money, as do the formal receptions and parties lawmakers are expected to hold, he added.
But many Iraqis feel parliament members just want their posts out of greed, not an urge to serve the country.
The disconnect in pay makes lower-level government employees feel justified in taking bribes, said Judge Raheem Hassan al-Uqailee, president of the independent Commission of Integrity, which fights government corruption.
The absence of a law regulating salaries leaves lawmakers to determine their own paychecks, he said. "We consider this legalized corruption."
Aliyah Nisayef, an MP who sits on the legislature's 13-member Anti-Corruption Committee, said she and a group of other lawmakers tried several times during the previous parliament to pass a law cutting salaries and perks.
Resistance was so fierce that not only did the bill fail to pass, but lawmakers who supported it received death threats, Nisayef said.
"Corruption is an epidemic," Nisayef said. "We are no match for them." She would not detail her own salary, but noted some lawmakers give large amounts to charity.
Recently, the Iraqi press reported that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki awarded cabinet ministers with plots of land in prime Baghdad districts. Far from criticizing him for the blatant patronage, lawmakers publicly demanded the premier put them on the distribution list.
"How can we hold others accountable if we as legislators have no integrity?" Nisayef said.