Although the subject is politically taboo, there are growing signs that people elected, or reelected to Congress today could get pay raises of more than $16,000 when they take the oath of office in January.
Unless the lame-duck Congress takes specific action to block a raise, congressional salaries now frozen at $60,662.50 will rise automatically in mid-December to $77,300.
In the process, thousands of career civil servants now frozen at $57,500 could get raises of up to $6,300, while pay for members of the Senior Executive Service could go up $8,700.
There were attempts earlier this year to raise congressional and top civil service pay. But they were shot down by members who expressed horror and disgust -- some of it real, some not so real -- at the thought of a preelection pay raise.
The continuing resolution to finance federal government operations through Dec. 17 of this year carries language that keeps the cap on congressional pay and on salaries of SES members and government employes down to the GS15 level.
But that pay cap expires with the continuing resolution. And unless the lame-duck Congress specifically votes to extend the cap, all top salaries will rise to "payable rates."
So-called payable rates are the amounts that Cabinet officers, members of Congress and government executives should be getting, according to the government, to make them reasonably comparable to the private sector.
On Oct. 8, President Reagan issued an executive order that authorized the government to give its nearly one million rank-and-file white-collar workers a 4 percent pay raise.
That order also established new "scheduled rates" for government executives in Levels 1 through 5 (Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts) and for 6,000-plus members of the SES. Members of Congress are paid at the Level 2 rate. The "payable rate" for that level is $60,662.50 while the "scheduled rate," if the cap goes off, is $77,300.
The current "payable rate" for most members of the SES is $58,500, but the "scheduled rate" that would apply if the cap expires is $67,200.
If Congress allows the cap on executive salaries to expire, employes in GS (general schedule) grades could go up to a new scheduled maximum of $63,800.
So what are the chances?
"There is something in the works, but I'm not at liberty to discuss it," said a top Democratic House staffer who is tuned in to the pay picture. "What happened earlier [the votes to kill any congressional pay raise] happened because the election was pending, and because some members thought they had been blind-sided by a slick attempt to slip through a pay raise." He said that Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who "exposed" one attempt to get a pay raise, "is not very popular up here right now."
A Democratic House member (who asked that his name not be used) said, "I think there is a very good chance that the House will reconsider the pay situation" after the pressure of the election is off.
A Reagan administration official said "we keep hands off congressional pay. But Ed Meese [one of the president's top advisers] and Don Devine [head of the Office of Personnel Management] are anxious to see executive salaries raised. That's no secret."
Because of retirements and defeats, he said, "as many as 25 percent of this final session of Congress will be lame ducks. It would make sense for them to vote, or allow, a pay raise not for themselves but for the next Congress."