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Leaders Weigh Tactics to Gain Increase in House Salaries Without Vote

By John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page A16

House leaders are weighing a plan to raise lawmakers' salaries without a direct vote on the politically sensitive question when the House considers the spending bill covering congressional pay in the next two weeks, according to congressional officials familiar with the matter.

The leaders also would like to find a way to ease the House ban on all gifts to lawmakers and their aides, but have yet to settle on a plan, the officials said.

Lawmakers have not had a raise in their salaries – which now stand at $133,600 for a rank-and-file member – since 1993 and have voted annually to cancel the cost-of-living adjustment to which they are entitled under the law. Congressional leaders have higher salaries, with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) getting $171,500.

The House version of the bill funding the Treasury Department and general government operations is headed to the House floor without any provision exempting lawmakers from the automatic 2.8 percent inflation adjustment that is to go to federal employees in the spending year beginning Oct. 1. Under a plan receiving serious consideration, House leaders would use a routine parliamentary procedure to block – without a vote – any attempt to add an exemption for lawmakers, the officials said.

That would avoid lawmakers having to go on record as making a politically difficult vote on the question, although they still would have to vote to pass the overall bill.

The increase would bring a rank-and-file House member's salary to $137,340 and the speaker's pay to $176,302.

In July, the Senate voted to waive the cost-of-living increase for lawmakers. At the time, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who joined with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to block the raise, argued lawmakers should not get a pay raise while cutting benefit programs as part of the plan to balance the budget.

In the House, though, leaders – including Gingrich and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) – have been discussing whether the time is ripe for raising congressional pay now that the sacrifices in the budget plan appear less severe, thanks to a growing economy. Members also point to rising public approval ratings of Congress.

The question was first raised earlier this year at the bipartisan retreat in Hershey, Pa., intended to make life in the House more civil. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) outlined the strategy being considered in a closed-door, lawmakers-only meeting of the GOP whip organization last week.

If the House bill were to allow the increase, the matter then would be decided in House-Senate negotiations on the spending bill.

Congressional salaries have been a politically sensitive topic for lawmakers since budget deficits and legislative ethics scandals began ballooning in the late 1980s. After lawmakers froze pay in 1988 and 1989, pressure grew for salaries to catch up with inflation.

In the early 1990s, the House and Senate voted raises of nearly 30 percent while banning often-hefty speaking fees and other honoraria, which could add nearly $30,000 to lawmakers' bank accounts. That brought lawmaker's salaries to $121,500 in 1991.

To avoid having to vote themselves pay raises, lawmakers also devised a plan to link their increases to the annual cost-of-living adjustments that go to all federal workers. But lawmakers have gotten only one automatic increase, a 3.2 boost in 1993 that brought their pay to its current level. In every year since, lawmakers have voted to freeze their pay.

Because federal judges' pay is linked to congressional salaries, pressure has been growing from the judiciary to raise lawmakers' pay or sever the link between lawmakers' and judges' pay checks.

Pressure is also growing to modify the 1995 ban on gifts to House members, except from their family or close friends. Lawmakers would like to bring it in line with Senate rules, which allow gifts of up to $50 in value, with an annual limit of gifts up to $100 from a single source.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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