NEWS STORIES seldom fit together as well as two that appeared on page A3 of this paper last Friday. One story said that, according to a Louis Harris poll, the public rated Congress' ethical standards as lower than those of any other public officials, consumer groups or - so help us - the press.Next to that was a story that showed one reason why: It told how the House leadership, by artful scheduling, has pretty well foreclosed a floor vote on the pending $12,400 congressional pay raise before it takes effect automatically on Feb. 20. The congressional raise is part of a package that would also increase the salaries of federal judges and top officials of the executive branch. Legislators who oppose an increase for themselves, and any who are willing to endorse it, may do so at a hearing. But no congressman is going to be required to vote himself 29 per cent more pay and take the heat from his constituents.
The Senate has behaved almost as shabbily. Sen. James B. Allen (D-Ala.) did bring up a disapproval motion on Wednesday, but it was tabled by a 56-42 vote. By doing that, those 56 senators did all that was needed to keep their raise on track without the embarrassment of actually voting for it. If braced by their constituents, they can take refuge in parliamentary double-talk: Wednesday, they can say, was not quite the right time to debate the issue. Oddly enough, if members of both houses play this game carefully, the right time for an honest yes-or-no vote will never be found.
This is of a piece with the recent news about House Ethics Committee Chairman John J. Flynt's resistance to removing Rep. Robert F.L. Sikes (D-Fla.) from a powerful chairmanship despite his reprimand for conflict-of-interest violations last year. And then there are the tales about the murky finances of House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who has used thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to pay off personal debts - apparently without technically violating any law. All this perpetuates the impression of cynicism as a way of congressional life.
Ironically, all this is happening just as that impression is getting a little out of date. A large majority of House Democrats did vote to take away Mr. Sikes' chairmanship. Far more significantly, a special House commission led by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) is finishing work on tough ethics rules that would, among other things, require full financial disclosure by representatives and their spouses, put strict curbs on outside earned income and abolish private office accounts. Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), whose style often seems reminiscent of "The Last Hurrah," is nonetheless said to be fully committed to a strong new code and has already bolstered the ethics committee's membership. Over in the Senate, a special panel chaired by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) has also started to devise new rules.
These initiatives are just what the independent Peterson commission had in mind when it concluded that members of Congress could most effectively justify a reasonable pay increase for themselves by coupling it with full disclosure and real curbs on corrupt and questionable practices. The pay raise, so the theory went, would make the ethics code more palatable, like a sugar-coated pill. The ways things are going now, however, the members are going to get the sugar without having to swallow the pill. We would like to believe that solid majorities for real reforms do now exist, and that House and Senate leaders are determined enough to overcome all the resistance that remains. But there is only one way for Congress to convince anybody on that score - and that is for it to swallow a strict ethics code.