LAST YEAR the House renounced one of its worst habits by agreeing to give up honoraria effective next January in return for a large offsetting pay raise. The vote was doubly constructive. Back-door pay in the form of honoraria from interest groups is wrong, and the pay structures of the executive and judicial branches, which Congress had been holding hostage, were freed as well.
The Senate, however, while letting the new system take effect for the rest of government, refused to apply it to itself. Pretending to be abstemious, it voted itself a smaller raise -- but tried to keep virtue cost-free by saying that senators could continue to earn reduced amounts of honoraria. The losing side warned at the time that the half-measure wouldn't work and the issue would return even less conveniently this year, an election year. Now that appears about to happen.
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) has a bill to bar honoraria. He says he hopes to find a vehicle and force it to a vote this month. It will be hard for the Senate to vote in favor of keeping honoraria this close to the election but equally hard to vote for a compensating pay raise. The latter, however, is what it ought to do. The raise the House had the courage to vote for is justified; the interest groups, often those with business before the very senators on whom they lavish fees, are the wrong paymasters.
The latest financial disclosure forms describe both halves of the Senate's problem. A third of the Senate -- 34 senators -- have sworn off honoraria on their own. In a year in which seven senators are under investigation by the ethics committee, the pressure is that great. But another third of the Senate -- 32 members -- kept more than $35,000 in honoraria for personal use (as distinct from giving the fees to charity). That was within a few hundred dollars of the legal maximum of 40 percent of salary.
The pay of the 100 senators came to about $9 million last year. The kept honoraria came to another $2 million, even with a third of the senators taking none. That is to say that the public through the Treasury paid about three-fourths of the Senate's salary, the interest groups through ostensible speaking fees the rest. That's not a healthy system of compensation, and the Senate should speedily abandon it.