Term Limits Special Report
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A Congressional Raise – For Term Limits

By George F. Will
Thursday, June 12, 1997; Page A23

The term-limits movement should feel that its enemies have delivered themselves into its hands. Some congressional leaders want rank-and-file legislators to accept, as they have not recently done, the pay raise proffered by a mechanism constructed by an earlier Congress.

In 1989 Congress, traumatized by recurring uproars over pay raises, made it statutory that Congress would get an automatic annual cost of living increase -- unless Congress votes not to take it. Which Congress has done, sullenly, since 1994. This is from Roll Call, the newspaper that covers Congress, on July 18 last year: "A grumpy House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to deny itself a pay raise for the third straight year. . . ."

America's median household income in 1995 (the most recent figure available) was $34,076. The average household income was $44,938. The congressional salary is $133,600 (up from $75,100 11 years ago).

But let's be large-spirited about this. It's only money. And not much of it, as sums are reckoned here. The one-year cost of a 2.8 percent COLA would be $3,740 per member, or $2,000,900 -- less than last year's $2.2 million deficit run up by Senate restaurants.

Members of Congress put in long hours, many of those hours devoted to the tedium of listening to their colleagues talk. The company members keep (their colleagues, constituents, lobbyists, journalists) is not sparkling. Most members travel as incessantly as a Willy Loman. Most must maintain two homes, one in Washington, one in their district.

Granted, a Roll Call study revealed that 67 of the 73 freshmen elected to the House in 1996 got pay increases over what they were making in their previous jobs. Still, without getting into problematic calculations of comparable worth, let us simply stipulate that their compensation -- even allowing for generous pensions -- is not above what they could command in private-sector employment of similar responsibilities.

So let's make a deal. They should get the raise at issue. They should get it when, but not a minute before, they vote to send a term-limits constitutional amendment to the states for ratification debates.

More than 70 percent of Americans favor term limits for Congress -- majorities of both sexes, all regions. In the nation's largest state, California, and 20 other states, the people have imposed term limits on state legislators. In the nation's two largest cities, Los Angeles and New York, the people have imposed term limits on the city councils. In state after state where the public could vote for limits on the members of Congress, they did.

Then the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that changes in the terms of national legislators require a constitutional amendment. The national political class gleefully pronounced term limits dead, because the class that would be limited can keep the limiting measure bottled up in Congress.

Is there any other measure remote\ly as popular as term limits that Congress has refused to advance? This refusal might seem an admirable act of principled risk-taking on the part of the political class. Actually, it is just proof that the one thing that will cause the political class to take an unpopular stand that might end its careerism is a term-limits amendment that would certainly end its career\ism.

Congress recently admonished the poor that a lifetime entitlement to welfare is unseemly. Quite right. But moralists, who are thick on the ground here, may question the seemliness of a lifetime entitlement to pay raises for a Congress that is not term-limited.

Still, national legislators have the power to protect their careerism against the wishes of the public, and have used that power boldly. Surely they will not feel ill-used if the American majority responds in kind concerning the pay raise, saying: As long as you refuse to allow the 50 states to conduct ratification debates on a term-limits amendment, the purchasing power of your pay will be slowly, steadily reduced.

Some untamed members of the House will force a vote on whether or not the House shall accept the COLA. Rep. Jon Christensen, a Nebraska Republican elected in 1994, has a bill that would repeal the automatic COLA until the budget is actually, rather than just hypothetically, balanced. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican elected in 1996, has a bill to eliminate the automatic COLA and, for good measure, reduce congressional pay 10 percent. Will a Republican Senate keep his bill from the floor?

Talk radio and other stirrers of the American stew can start the cry: Pay goes up only when the amendment goes to the states. Inflation may slow\ly lower congressional resistance to term limits by slowly lowering congressional pay.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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