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Congress Needs a Pay Raise

Tuesday, October 31, 1989; Page A22


Congress needs a pay raise. So do the members of the executive and judicial branches that it holds hostage. We were among those who fought the 50 percent raise that Congress finally denied itself as this year began; it was too large. But that poorly prepared proposal only deferred and did not dispose of the pay issue, which is now about to return. A much more sensible and, we would hope, palatable plan is shortly to be put before the House, in part in the context of congressional ethics. For the sake of both the quality and the independence of government, it, or a comparable alternative, ought to pass.

Most of the ethics issues in this as in any Congress can be boiled down to one: how to limit the influence of outside money. The influence is felt partly through campaign contributions, partly through such direct devices as gifts, free travel and entertainment and honoraria. The House, where the focus is this year, has had bipartisan task forces studying both. The campaign issue has for all practical purposes been put off again as too hard, which is too bad. The task force on direct blandishments has made provisional recommendations.

The most important is a ban on honoraria, without which no ethics bill would be worthy of the name. These speaking fees from interest groups now total more than $8 million a year; they represent a one-sixth add-on to congressional pay. The task force has therefore also recommended a pay increase. House members, all of whom have to run for reelection next year, are reluctant to walk the plank for a pay raise under the best of circumstances. They certainly don't want to do so if the Senate will then strand them, as it has before. Senators generally are better known than House members, and find it easier to pick up the maximum permitted honoraria. Their statesmanlike attitude in the past has been to keep taking the money from interest groups rather than risk offending the voters.

The issue is a test of leadership in which more is at stake than just the weaning of Congress. In holding its own pay beneath the rate of inflation in recent years, Congress has done the same to the upper ranks of the executive branch and judiciary – but career civil servants and judges have not had the comfort of interest-group money to fall back on. They are hurting, and it is said that quality is suffering as well as morale.

President Bush, who wants to raise executive and judicial salaries, has also endorsed a congressional pay raise, though only in general terms. To help provide Congress with cover, he now needs to embrace a specific proposal and take the lead in fighting for it. The leaders of the holier-than-thou Senate must then at least agree to stay out of the way, after which Tom Foley, Dick Gephardt and Bob Michel need to shepherd their sheep.

If they can't, then the least that Congress should do is free its hostages. We think that members of Congress deserve a pay raise in the range now under discussion (inflation adjustments this year and next, then a catch-up of 25 percent, but only after an intervening election) and perhaps even a little more. But pay in the other branches should be increased no matter what happens to Congress's. Honoraria should be abolished as well. The public, not the interest groups whose fortunes Congress controls, ought to pay Congress.

© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post

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