YOU CAN GENERALLY count on Congress not to raise its own pay in an election year. And you can generally assume that high federal salaries will be a conspicuous target in any anti-inflation drive. When these elements fall together - when you have a serious anti-inflation campaign in an election year - it figures that President Carter would want to set an example by curbing this fall's general civil-service pay increase and giving no raise at all to executive appointees and his own senior staff. It also figures that Congress would come down harder, as the House Appropriations Committee did the other day, by slapping a freeze on all congressional, executive and judicial salaries of $47,500 or more.
There is more than political point-making behind these moves. Unless the government keeps its own increases down, Mr. Carter can hardly make a credible appeal for self-restraint by executives in private companies. Unless corporate boards and managers practice some self-denial, there is much less hope for moderating the demands of unions and lower-paid workers who feel the inflationary pinches more severely.
Thus it is necessary to limit this year's general federal raise to around 5.5 percent. In our view, however, a total freeze on top federal salaries is too harsh, especially since Mr. Carter is asking private executives only to hold their own gains down to 5 percent. Members of Congress, federal judges and high-level federal executives did get large increases lat year, but those hikes were so huge because Congress had kept such a tight, unfair lid on those salaries since 1969. Moreover, to blunt the controversy over that raise, the law-makers refused to give last fall's cost-of-living increase to those in top brackets. If the freeze approved by the House committee goes through, those officials - some 16,000 of them - will stay at their February 1977 pay levels until at least October 1979. Inflation since their last raise has already reduced their purchasing power around 10 percent.
A prolonged freeze will cause other inequities, too. As pay scales just below the $47,500 level do rise, salaries in the top GS ranks will get compressed again, just as they did between 1969 and last year. In this respect, too, the House move has a dreary air of here-we-go-again. It suggests that Congress has learned little or nothing from pay problems of the past, and is once again adopting a cheap, politically slanted approach. If members of Congress want to freeze their own pay to gain points at home, that's their prerogative. But they would set a better example - and, we suspect, have more credibility - if they gave modest, carefully scaled increases to those in the top executive and judicial ranks.