THE RECENT congressional pay raise has become one of those issues that won't go away. And it does have several handles that annoyed voters can easily grasp. One thing that citizens tend to care about is salaries, and a 28.9 per cent hike to $57,500 per year is something that anyone can understand - especially when the dollar increase of $12,900 is more than so many Americans earn in a very good year. Then there is all of the publicity about congressional perquisites and peccadilloes. Finally, there is the way in which the increase came about. Members of Congress may think that voting themselves a pay raise is politically unbearable, but they've learned since February that getting a hike without voting on it can be even worse.
We happen to think that the increase was justified, especially in tandem with the stiff financial disclosure rules and restrictions that both houses have imposed on themselves this spring. In fact, the raise may have been a very good bargain. In addition to the disclosure rules that more or less came with it, the raise and its attendent fuss have pushed Congress to change the pay-raise process. Future pay increases will have to be voted on - and voted separately, free of the entanglement with executive salaries that has caused so many problems in the past.
Yet the issue persists, perhaps in part because the public is still skeptical, to put it mildly, about the capacity of Congress for ethical strictness and self-discipline. And so the House last week after a rather rancorous debate, voted 236-179 to cut the relevant budget category by $7 million. A day later, the House decided to kill the budget resolution entirely, so the whole business will no doubt the gone through again. As several members pointed out, this round is just a gesture anyway; the only way to cut actual pay would be to cut the appropriation, which will be considered some weeks hence.
In our view, Congress should not retreat. A cutback would hurt members who do not have comfortable financial cushions. It would probably also rebound against the entire Congress by reinforcing the view that the legislators were trying to do something sneaky and shameless the first time around. If individual members want to forego the increae or donate it to charity, as some are doing, that's fine. But Congress as a whole should swallow hard and get on with other public business. Doing more solid work to earn that salary is the best way to deal with the public disaffection that is evidently still so widespread.