It took three tries and help from President Carter, George Meany and Common Cause, but yesterday the House voted itself a 5.5 percent pay raise.
If approved by the Senate, the raise will also go to senators, top congressional staff members, federal judges and about 22,000 other federal employes who make more than $47,500 a year.
The House avoided a record vote on the raise itself. Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) tried to force such a vote, but he needed 44 members to stand up and demand it. He got only 41. A non-record vote on an amendment by Rep. George O'Brien (R-Ill.) to prevent the raise then failed, 155 to 72.
Three times in five days the Democratic leadership had successfully maneuvered to prevent a record vote on the raise, only to see the bill itself defeated each time.
Yesterday, however, Democratic leaders orchestrated the voting like a Brahms symphony, matching every "no" vote with a "yes" right down to the end of the 15-minute voting period. It was 204 to 204 when the clock showed no time remaining. Then the Democrats produced Reps. Gunn McKay (Utah), Edward Boland (Mass.) and George Brown (Calif.) to vote for the bill. Rep. Ken Holland (D-S.C.) switched to "yes," and the final vote was 208 to 203. A cheer went up in the chamber.
The raise would lift congressional salaries from $57,500 per year to $60,700, an increase of $3,200.Though most members wanted the money, fear of constituents' reaction had kept them from voting for it previously.
This time, Democratic leaders bolstered members' natural inclinations and soothed their fears by having President Carter, AFL-CIO president Meany and Common Cause write letters endorsing the raise.
"Members of Congress, like all other workers, must have a raise so their families can afford today's prices," Meany wrote.
In addition, the leadership convinced members the raise was a "limit" on what they were actually entitled to by law. Because members of Congress and the others are entitled to an automatic cost-of-living increase each October, and because Congress had voted to reject the increase in 1978, freezing members' pay, they would have gotten a 12.9 percent increase this year if they had done nothing at all.
"This is not a pay raise. By accepting the 5.5, we are waiving our right to 12.9 we are otherwise entitled to.We can set an example by scaling back ourselves," Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) argued.
However, Republicans contended that the average family of four makes about $18,000 per year and is angry about inflation, and would not take kindly to what looks like a princely congressional salary. "It's a specious argument to say we cannot live on this money," Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) said."A family of four could make twice $18,000 and still not reach our salary."
Finally the Democratic leadership permitted Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.) to add an entire $10.8 billion public works appropriation, containing money for the controversial Tellico Dam, to the bill. This maneuver allowed an end run of any possible veto of the regular appropriations bill, which Carter had threatened to veto because it contains the Tellico money.
Adding the endangered public works bill may have led several southern Democrats to change their votes and support the pay raise. "It was just a little insurance," Bevill said.
The bill to which the pay raise was attached contains about $250 billion for departments and agencies whose appropriations bills won't be passed before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Without this bill, funding for programs and payrolls could run out, since Congress intends to start a four-week recess Saturday.
Perhaps the most unpopular member of the House yesterday was Rep. Peter Peyser (D-N.Y.). Peyser tried to introduce an amendment that said anyone who voted against the raise wouldn't get it.
"This is the dumbest amendment I've ever seen proposed . . . foolhardy . . . stupid," said Rep. William Miller (R-Ohio).
An attempt by area members Joseph Fisher (D-Va.) and Michael Barnes (D-Md.) to give Congress a 5.5 percent raise and all others covered by the bill 7 percent failed.
Area members Fisher, Barnes, Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) and Herb Harris (D-Va.) all voted for the bill. Spellman was one who switched from no to yes.