Congress did it again yesterday. It managed to out-fox itself and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You had to be there.
After the second round of the annual Congressional Pay Riase Classic in which Congress challenges itself to a game of political chicken, the score is:
The game will be resumed.
What Congress tried to do yesterday, did and eventually undid, was to quietly vote itself a 7 percent pay raise. There is much spectator interest locally because 9,000 top U.S. officials here have their pay raise fortunes linked to congressional action.
The exciting action took place in the House. It faces an Oct. 1 deadline over its own budget, a budget that includes a mandatory (unless changed) 12.9 percent raise for members.For political reasons nobody in Congress can stomach the idea of a 12.9 percent rise in their $57,500 salaries. So the plan has been to take less, something like the 7 percent that rank-and-file federal workers and military people will get next month.
Since congressional pay acts as a lid on executive federal salaries, Congress must boost its own pay before the career government ceiling can exceed $47,500. It could raise civil service pay independently of its own, but that rarely happens.
House members thought they had the solution yesterday. They wanted to use a parliamentary device that would allow members to vote on the pay raise without being recorded individually. Idea was to pass the 7 percent raise and give members the option of saying they opposed it when they faced angry voters. It worked, for a while at least.
After forcing the no-fault vote, in which members were counted but not recorded by name, the bill for the legislative branch appropriation and the 7 percent congressional-executive pay raise passed, 156 to 64. Word was sent back to federal agencies. Supergraders who have been denied pay raises for a couple of years were jubilant. But they broke out the champagne too soon.
Shortly after oakying the no-fault 7 percent pay raise, the House turned around and defeated it by killing off the "continuing resolution" that would have set the 7 percent raise. The continuing resolution is designed to let Congress meet its current payroll and obligations until a regular budget bill is passed. By undoing it's earlier action, Congress now is back in the politically uncomfortable position where it must take the larger, 12.9 percent raise by Oct. 1.
Insiders predict Congress will try again, either killing off all raises for itself and government executives, or taking less than 12.9 percent.
Meantime, President Carter has sent a strong letter to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill on the pay issue. Carter says that Congress should okay moderate, 7 percent raises for senior government executives even if it vetoes any increase for its own members.Capitol Hill aides say the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management persuaded the president to make the appeal to forestall mass resignations or retirements by top federal officials.
Congress will try it again on the pay issue. Until it acts, senior federal bureaucrats do not know what kind of pay raise, if any, they will get this year as their subordinates get a 7 percent boost.