THE MANEUVERING OVER the congressional pay rise and ethics legislation gets more convoluted by the day. As we noted on Sunday, some legislators want to let their 29 per cent hike slide through this month but are in no rush to accompany it with a strong new ethics code. A sizeable number of senators and representatives, however, are committed to full financial disclosure, curbs on outside earnings and other tough rules. This has aroused some of their colleagues who now make considerable extra income on the side. And some of them, we hear, are now taking the interesting tack of trying to block the pay raise. The theory, apparently, is that holding down official salaries would reduce other members' enthusiasm for new ethical rules - and thus preserve the freedom to profit from private deals.
However, tangled this may seem, it has a ring of plausibility. After all, many people - including ourselves - have argued that if congressional pay is raised from $44,600 to $57,500, legislators will be more willing to forego large honoraria, legal fees, directors' fees and other private income that may involve conflicts of interest or profiteering on one's incumbency. It's a good bargain for many members of Congress - and for the institution as a whole. But if a congressman is now, let's say, raking in $20,000 per year in legal fees, or collecting $50,000 annually for attending a few corporate board meetings, his perspective may well be different. And it could be to his advantage to forego the pay raise if that might help maintain his private opportunities.
We're certainly not suggesting that all the congressional, opposition to the pay raise - or to various proposed ethics rules - is based on personal calculations of this sort. But because current disclosure rules are so inadequate, is is impossible to identify all the senators and representatives who do have outside interests that would be affected by the curbs being discussed. And in the absence of hard information, the public is bound to keep thinking that all congressional decisions on pay and ethics involve more self-interest than principle - even when this is not the case. That is one more reason why a strong new code of ethics is so important, whether or not the pay raise goes through.