THE SENATE'S surreptitious vote to evade the strict limits it had set (but never endured) on members' outside income is a nice symbol of the estrangement between the electorate and its elected officials that bedevils American politics these days.
The Senate sensed that the public would neither understand nor appreciate its desire to avoid a rule passed two years ago limiting senators to $8,625 in outside earned income each year. So instead of debating the question openly or taking a roll-call vote on it, the Senate, in a hurried voice vote, simply nodded favorably at a proposal to postpone for four years the date when the rule would take effect.
This is symptomatic of the times. Members of Congress often talk about the public the way the man at the bar in those old New Yorker cartoons used to complain about his wife: "They don't understand me," goes the line on Capitol Hill.
It may also be true. The men and woman elected to the Senate in these times lead lives that generally have little in common with their constituents' daily rounds. Money illustrates the point. A senator's salary of $57,500 puts him among the highest 1 percent of wage earners in America.
But this is hardly enough, to hear the senators tell it - or at least those who complain. The Senate does have a great many wealthy people, including 21 millionaires, who stay out of these discussion. Many of those without wealth tend to complain bitterly about the costs of serving in the Senate.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), an unwealthy senator and one of only two who dared speak out in favor of suspending the strict limit on outside income, put the case on the Senate floor:
"It is well know, especially for those whose families are at a particular state of need in education and for whom inflation continues to be a problem, that a cloud hovers over the experience of being a senator which ought not to be there."
"Service in the Senate should not require a sacrifice," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the other member who was willing to speak out on the floor. "I do not know of any senator who has resigned because he or she cannot make ends meet," Steven said, "but someone might. Others may have to borrow against savings. Some may have to go into debt . . . "
THE FOLKS at home might think all this complaining a bit extravagant, but that is because they don't live like U.S. senators.
Which only means that senators tend to live the lives of Washington's upper-middle-class establishment, taking for granted all sorts of consumption goods and services that few constituents would consider normal. If it is truly difficult to make ends meet on $57,500 a year (plus outside income), and the average American family is earning well under $20,000, then these senators must have little in common with the average family.
But should they? The arguments are numerous, and persuasive to many, that elected leaders are entitled to special status. The senators themselves tend to subscribe to this view, as the dimensions and fixtures of their new Hart Office Building will attest. Voting themselves that luxurious establishment, including offices for senators that are two stories high, even offended the House of Representatives, which temporarily held up the money.
But if the Senate is to have exalted status, it will also have to endure strained relations with large segments of its electorate. Many Americans, the polls tell us, see their politicians as a distant "them" - aliens instead of neighbors, not part of their world.
The senators know this, so when the issue came before them of suspending strict limits on their outside income, they decided not to have a debate or a roll-call vote. Better to sneak this one through, they seemed to agree.
So no debate occurred. No serious discussion was heard about the basic issue of fairness involved - the fact that the Senate's wealthy members were in no way limited in exploiting their unearned income, whereas poorer members would have been strictly discouraged from earning extra cash. This would not be so easy to explain, perhaps; anyway, only Stevens and Moynihan tried.
SINCE THE VOTE, THE NEW YORK TIMES HAS POLLED SENATORS' OFFICES TO ASK HOW THEY WOULD HAVE VOTED HAD THEY BEEN GIVEN THE CHANCE. FORTY-FOUR REPLIED THEY WOULD HAVE OPPOSED LIFTING THE INCOME LIMIT, WHILE 42 SAID THEY WOULD HAVE SUPPORTED IT. THE REST DIDN'T SAY.
COMMON CAUSE, THE LOBBYING GROUP, HAS BEEN TRYING TO FIND A SINGLE SENATOR WHO WOULD RISE ON THE FLOOR TO REQUEST A ROLL CALL ON THE RULES CHANGE - SOMETHING THAT WOULD STILL BE EASY TO DO ACCORDING TO PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE. SO FAR, FRED WERTHEIMER OF COMMON CAUSE SAID FRIDAY, NO SENATOR HAS EXPRESSED WILLINGNESS TO DO IT.
THE FOREBODING ABOUT THEIR REAL STATUS BACK HOME THAT LED SENATORS TO HIDE FROM THIS ISSUE IS A REAL FACTOR IN THE COUNTRY'S POLITICS RIGHT NOW. ELECTED OFFICIALS ARE AFRAID OF THE PUBLIC, AND OFTEN BEHAVE ACCORDINGLY.
ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE TELEVISION ADS IN LAST FALL'S SENATE ELECTIONS WAS ONE MADE FOR GORDON HUMPHREY, A CO-PILOT FOR ALLEGHENY AIRLINES WHO CHALLENGED SEN. THOMAS MCINTYRE (D-N.H.), a respected incumbent. "The moment I saw that ad," one New England writer commented later, "I knew McIntyre was finished."
It showed Humphrey on a tropical beach. Behind him, as he pointed out to New Hampshire voters watching, was the condominium that Sen. McIntyre had purchased in Florida.
McIntyre's allies claimed a low blow. Humphrey won the election.