Symbolism counts for a great deal in Washington.
Back in November, for example, members of Congress roasted automakers' CEOs for traveling to the nation's capital in private jets to seek a bailout for their industry.
"Those types of symbolic things, they really matter. They set a tone," said U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican.
So what sort of "tone" should members of the Senate and House set when it comes to their own pay? At the very least, Congress should hold an up-or-down vote on whe- ther the members will insist on receiving the $4,700-a-year raise they are otherwise automat- ically scheduled to receive this year.
The 2.8 percent increase would raise their salaries to $174,000 annually, placing them near the top 5 percent of all wage earners in the country. Office perks, gold-plated health care and pensions sweeten the deal beyond the salary, benefits that outstrip those received by many private workers.
A vote -- which for now is not scheduled to occur -- would show which members of Congress are on record in favor of the higher pay. And which members think it's time to forgo the added money.
A decision to give up some of or the entire raise would be a welcome symbolic action as the country suffers through some lean times.
Tens of millions of American taxpayers who supply the salaries for Congress are facing some of their worst financial problems in decades.
Businesses are laying off workers, freezing employee wages or reducing benefits.
Many members of Congress will claim any vote on their own pay raise would be merely symbolic. But this is an appropriate year for shared sacrifice and tangible evidence of a new kind of leadership in Washington.
After all, many other Americans are being forced to give up a lot more to try to survive tough economic times.