85 Foes Find $125,100 Pay Acceptable
By Maralee Schwartz
At least 85 House members voted against the congressional pay raise but have decided to accept this year's 25 percent hike, along with a 3.6 percent cost-of-living increase. Are they having their cake and eating it too?
"It's always easier to vote 'No' around here, let the others do the hard work and then take the benefits," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) said.
Fazio, the new chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, was an architect of the pay-ethics package the House approved in November 1989. The legislation increased members' annual salaries from $89,500 to $96,600 on Jan. 1, 1990, and allowed them to earn an additional $26,850 in honoraria, the same as 1989. On Jan. 1, 1991, salaries rose to $125,100, and honoraria were banned.
Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, surveyed the 147 members who voted against the raise and are still in Congress to ask what they plan to do with their pay increase. The survey found that 85 lawmakers will keep the money, 11 will return it to the treasury, and 15 will donate it to charity. Twelve members said they were still undecided even though yesterday's paycheck included their raise. And 24 did not respond.
"Anyone who has any self-respect ought to take what is determined to be an appropriate level of pay," Fazio said. "If you take it, people respect you more if you voted for it. The worst of all worlds politically is to vote 'No' and take the money."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, which suppported the pay-ethics package, said, "Those who voted for the raise and took the money were prepared to live with the consequences of their actions. Those who voted 'No' and are taking the money managed to duck the issue and the voters in the process."
Fazio said he understands that some members in both parties were in "political difficulty and were urged by colleagues to vote 'No' to protect themselves." But he emphasized that for most the vote did not have to do with ideology and politics. "It really was a question of personal values."
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who pledged during his first campaign in 1980 that he would oppose pay raises and returns $15,000 of his salary to the treasury, is more supportive of colleagues who voted against the raise, but, unlike him, take it.
"They voted their conscience and their constituency. They did what they could to legislatively prevent passage of the pay raise," Evans said. "These members feel they work as hard as anyone else. Why should they earn less than everyone else?"
The dilemma would be resolved, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) said, if Congress did not set its own pay. "I am terribly embarrassed that we do this. What other employee gets to set his own pay?" asked Emerson, who opposed the raise.
Emerson accepts pay raises, but with a caveat: He donates any raise that is voted in mid-term to a scholarship fund he established for needy students in his congressional district and waits for the beginning of the next term to accept the raise. "I voted against what Congress did," he said. "My side did not prevail. But I have always said I would accept the pay established by law for the term to which I am elected."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who voted against the raise but will accept it, said he is trying "to make the best of an unhappy situation." Hyde said he would have preferred leaving things just the way they were.
"The package was not simply a pay raise," he said. "It eliminated honoraria almost $27,000. I maxed out on honoraria every year. You count on that. I see nothing hypocritical or duplicitous in not swallowing a $27,000 cut in income."
But consumer activist Ralph Nader, a fervent opponent of congressional pay increases, does see it that way. "Honoraria is an unethical practice, and they just want the taxpayer to make it up," he said, "as if dropping an unethical practice should be rewarded."
Hyde will not be made to feel guilty. "Despite what the Ralph Naders of the world say, this is a back-breaking job," Hyde said. "I think it's a bad rap that people accuse Congress of greed."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) puts his 'No' vote on the pay raise and his decision to keep the increase in a different context.
"If I have to be guided by how I vote, then when I drive into a gas station, I must tell the gas station man, 'I voted for lower gas taxes. So I am paying you less, but I'm sending a check to the IRS because I voted for a surtax on incomes over $100,000.' "
"There is a general principle here," Frank said. "You can disagree with a public policy. . . . It's not hypocritical to abide by the majority's decision unless you think that a particular decision is immoral."
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post