It would be cruel and unfair to suggest that anybody with enough money can buy a member of Congress.
But it is possible, in the case of some, to gain their "understanding" about your problems.
Congress is now in a position in which big business, big labor and even the Korean Central Intelligence Agency can try to exert influence on votes by passing out money, tickets and other items of value to those members of Congress who are willing to accept them to supplement the $57,500 salary they draw from the taxpayers.
It's unclear precisely what Congress intends to do about it. The idea was that once the 28.9 per cent pay increase went into effect in February, it would be followed by codes of ethics, including restrictions on what members of Congress could accept over and above their salaries.
The 28.9 per cent raise Congress got (that's $12,000 per member) came about at the suggestion of a blue-ribbon private citizens' panel. It said top public officials ought to get more money. Although no member of the panel is in the pauper category, their generous recommendations were considered modest in many quarters. Especially in the House and Senate.
Under a law Congress passed some years back, the raises go into effect automatically unless blocked by either the Senate or the House. Both bodies made sure the issue never came up for a roll-call vote. Both bodies agreed that in return for the raises, a code of ethics limiting outside income would be adopted.
Some members of Congress howled that the outside earning limit would cut down on the legitimate bucks (not to mention travel expenses and other items) they get for making speeches. It is not unusual for a member of the Senate or House to get $500 or $1,000, plus expenses and bed and board, for delivering a speech to, say, the AFL-CIO or the American Medical Association, which was written for him by either the AGL-CIO or the AMA.
It doesn't seem to occur to some of the speech makers that their primary source of income is from the people, and that the majority of our lawmakers wouldn't be asked to play dummy at a bridge game if they weren't members of Congress who have a vote on items of interest to the groups that buy their words.
Most members of Congress are honest, decent, hard-working people. They aren't the type - usually - who would sell a vote or compromise their principles for the price of a speech honorarium.
But most members, being decent, honest people, can't help recalling who invites them to talk, who is nice, who sends a regular check. In that sense a $1,000 honorarium paid a member last year can come back, twenty-fold, next year when a special interest group gets the "right" vote on an issue.
It looked for a time, while the pay raise issue was still in the air, as though Congress would come up with an outside earning limit this year. Although many consider the pay and fringe benefits of Congress adequate, the outside income limit was set at $8,625. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to weaken its own code of ethics (to go along with the House) and delay the outside-income limitation until an apparent effective date of Jan. 1, 1979. A lot can happen between now and then.
Obviously some members of Congress feel the public - with its short attention span - has cooled off over the 28.9 per cent pay raise. Clearly they hope the voters will forget the whole thing soon. Maybe. Maybe not.
I spent part of yesterday with an eighth-grade English class at Western Junior High School in Bethesda. Lots of questions. Those kids are sharp.
I'd been doing rather well with the answers until the question of congressional outside earnings came up. Several young people asked how can they do it? How can Congress promise reforms, take a pay raise, then ignore the reforms?
I didn't have the answer. I still don't. But I have a suggestion for members of Congress who would like to remain members of Congress. Those young people at Western, and others, will be voting in a few years. And Congress had better have some good answers, or some members will have to depend entirely on outside earnings.