The economy is in a tailspin.

More than 860,000 people lost their homes in foreclosures in 2008, while more than three million foreclosure notices were sent out by mortgage lenders. Roughly 11 million Americans are out work. And more than 37 million Americans, including 12 percent of our senior citizens, are living in poverty.

What are our representatives in Congress, many of whom are millionaires in their own right, doing about the toll this recession is taking on America’s lower and middle classes? For one thing, they’ve given themselves a $4,700 pay raise, which will cost the U.S. government an additional $2.5 million this year.

That’s on top of their six-figure salaries and the millions in taxpayer dollars spent to maintain offices in their home state and in the nation’s capital, as well as other benefits such as free life insurance, a generous retirement plan for life, 32 fully reimbursed road trips home a year, and travel to foreign lands. Then there are the “extras,” including discounts in Capitol Hill tax-free shops and restaurants, $10 haircuts at the Congressional barbershop, free reserved parking at Washington National Airport, use of the House gym or Senate baths for $100 a year, free fresh-cut flowers from the Botanic Gardens, and free assistance in the preparation of income taxes.

However, serving in Congress wasn’t always about perks and entitlements. In the early days of our country, members of Congress were paid $6 per day — and that was only while they were in session. It wasn’t until 1815 that members actually began receiving an annual salary to the tune of $1,500 per year.

Yet even statesmen are not immune to the lure of power and money. Before long, the revolutionary ideal of “good government,” led by public servants who act selflessly and promote the greater good, was overshadowed by a culture of corruption in Congress.

The culture of corruption that eventually came to pervade Congress was epitomized by the Salary Grab of 1873. On March 13, the last day of their term, members of the 42nd Congress, nearly half of whom would not be returning, voted to give themselves a retroactive pay increase that amounted to a $5,000 going-away present.

Yet human nature being what it is, reform rarely lasts long. Inevitably, legislative checks on corruption give way to renewed efforts to sidestep such controls until we find ourselves in our current strait, in a vicious cycle of corruption and minor reform.

Needless to say, Congress is on the downswing of that cycle and has been for quite some time.

Pork barrel spending, hastily passed legislation, partisan bickering, a skewed work ethic, graft and moral turpitude have all contributed to the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with congressional leadership.

You’d be hard-pressed to find employees with such dismal performance evaluations getting a pay raise of any kind. Conveniently, Congress doesn’t have to worry about that since they voted in 1989 to give themselves an automatic raise every year.

Some members of Congress have announced their intentions to refuse this year’s salary increase if Congress does not first vote to suspend it, and legislation has already been proposed to refuse next year’s increase. However, the public’s discontent over Congress’ pay raise is really not about the $2.5 million pay increase. (After all, we spend roughly that amount every 15 minutes in the war in Iraq.)

Today, many of our politicians live like kings. Chauffeured around in limousines, flying in private jets and eating gourmet meals, all paid for by the American taxpayer, they are far removed from those they represent.

Something needs to change, and dramatically. As President Obama recently reminded Americans, we will need to make some sacrifices in the way we live in order to lift the country from recession, but we should not be the only ones sacrificing.

For his part, Obama has taken a small but symbolic step in the right direction. Declaring that “families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington,” Obama announced his intention to freeze the salaries of White House employees who make over $100,000. Now Congress needs to do their part.

Winston Churchill once said that “a politician thinks about the next election — the statesman thinks about the next generation.” It’s time for our elected representatives in Congress to stop acting like politicians and start remembering that they exist to serve the people, not themselves.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.