It happened in a matter of seconds. The House of Representatives was packed, but there was no discussion or debate in the chamber and no roll-call vote. Some congressmen standing on the floor later complained they weren't even aware the issue had come and gone.
But when it was over last Dec. 15, the House had doubled the amount of outside annual income members are permitted to earn--from $9,099 to $18,198. Several months before that congressmen also had approved for themselves benefits that increased their annual automatic, guaranteed tax deductions by at least $10,000--also with no recorded vote.
Two previous attempts to adopt these controversial benefits--one in committee and one on the House floor--failed last year when they were considered and discussed openly.
"These things are too hot to handle openly and aboveboard, unfortunately," said House Republican leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), a strong supporter of the measures. "It's the most damnable frustrating thing for me to deal with. It hurts me to have to say this. It reflects adversely on the institution . . . . When the roll is called everyone runs for cover."
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a key participant in the efforts to increase congressional compensation, agreed. "I wish we could do it right up front with a lot of debate and the public and press present. But if we did that I don't think anything would have happened," explained Fazio. "I think the average member of Congress is unwilling or afraid to face their constitutents on this issue . . . . A basic cowardice exists in the House on this issue."
Late last year, the Senate also adopted the tax deduction change, and voted to remove a limit on annual outside earnings from speeches. The Senate passed both measures more openly, with floor debate and a roll-call vote.
Nearly all of the 25 members of Congress interviewed recently agreed that some form of increased benefits are reasonable and necessary. Their $60,662.50 annual salary has not been increased in two years. Members had been limited to $3,000 in tax-deductible living expenses since 1952.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the limit had become totally unrealistic. "We are trying to find some fairness," Stevens explained in an interview. The old rules were "discriminatory," he said, since ordinary citizens are not restricted in the amount of outside income or legitimate tax deductions they may take.
"We're only asking to be treated the same as everyone else," he said.
Many members of Congress are aware of just how sensitive and volatile compensation issues are with voters back home; it is that same concern that makes them reluctant to vote themselves a direct pay increase. More than a dozen bills recently have been introduced in both the House and Senate to repeal or modify the benefits they voted for themselves last year.
"We ought to be more honest with the people," said Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), who supports efforts to repeal the increases in outside earnings in the House. The way it was originally passed in the House, she told colleagues on the floor, "is sneaky. It's the pickpocket's way."
On Oct. 28, 1981, Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) proposed that Congress substantially raise its limit on outside income.
In a floor debate, several congressmen opposed to the measure pointed out that the limit had been adopted as part of an ethical reform in 1977 to prevent members of Congress from becoming involved in conflicts of interest by accepting such large amounts of outside income.
"The ethical reasons for its adoption are just as valid today as when it was first adopted, if not stronger," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) led the fight against raising the limit. "We now run the risk as being seen across the country as hypocrites, people asking others to do what we ourselves will not do--namely sacrifice," Walker said.
Despite the strong endorsement of House Democratic leader James C. Wright Jr. (Tex.) and Republican leader Michel, Bolling's proposal lost by 271 to 147.
"I brought that resolution to the floor and it was defeated soundly," Bolling said in an interview. "As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it."
But it was not over.
A few days after the vote, Michel recalls bumping into Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).
Michel said that Murtha suggested the measure could be passed if both the Republican and Democratic leadership pushed for the approval without a floor debate or a roll-call vote.
Michel was not optimistic.
"It's ridiculous to bring the thing up unless you have the votes," he recalls telling Murtha. "Why go through the trauma again if you're not going to win?"
Michel recalls Murtha's answer: "Don't give up hope."
"I'll believe it when I see it," Michel said.
Murtha pursued his strategy in the next few weeks. Working behind the scenes, he received approval from his own party leadership and from Rep. Trent Lott (Miss.), the Republican whip.
Lott said he informed House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) of the plan.
"I spoke to O'Neill," Lott said in an interview. "I told him we the Republicans were aware that it was going to be brought up and there was no objection from the Republican leadership."
Any congressman can introduce a resolution at any time and it can be approved without debate or roll-call vote--providing it has the support of the leadership of both parties and the House speaker.
Such a resolution could pass in a matter of seconds by a parliamentary procedure called "unanimous consent," which means that no one on the floor voices an objection to the resolution. It is not uncommon for this procedure to be used; generally, however, it is used to approve non-controversial matters, or routine commemorative resolutions.
Dec. 15 was to be a long day in Congress, as legislators were rushing to finish up business before the Christmas break. Murtha took his resolution to the floor that day.
Walker and Hamilton, the two congressmen who had led the fight when the measure was defeated in October, were on the floor much of that day. Walker had been on the floor since noon, when the session began; Hamilton was in and out. At 4 p.m., Walker left the House chambers.
"The minority Republicans came to the majority and suggested this was an appropriate time to handle it--because Walker wasn't there," explained Chris Matthews, an aide to O'Neill.
At about 4:45, O'Neill gave the floor to Murtha. According to the Congressional Record, only four sentences were spoken in a matter of seconds and the resolution was adopted.
"Mr. Speaker, I have at the desk a resolution and I ask for its immediate consideration," Murtha said.
O'Neill said: "The clerk will report the resolution."
The clerk began to read: "That clause 1 of Rule XLVII of the Rules of House of Representatives . . . ." Murtha interrupted before the word "honoraria"--the term for fees members of Congress receive for speeches or other outside appearances--or any other such reference was made.
"Mr. Speaker," Murtha said, "I ask unanimous consent that the resolution be considered as read and printed in the Record."
At this point, unless someone had advance notice, there was no way of knowing what the Murtha resolution was about.
O'Neill said: "Is there any objection to the request of the gentleman from Pennsylvania?"
There was no objection. The resolution was adopted, and the House moved on to a public debate about "Crater Lake National Park Boundary."
"I was sitting there in the House," recalled Fenwick, "when Murtha rose to his feet and the speaker recognized him, and bang, bang, bang . . . it was finished. It happened in seconds, and I didn't have any idea of what it was about. It was absolutely maddening."
Murtha declined requests to be interviewed on the matter.
Said Walker: "I'd been on the floor all day long. I have no doubt that John Murtha was waiting for me to leave . . . . It was pretty obvious that I was a thorn in their side the first time it came up."
Said Hamilton: "There was no reason to think the sentiment of the House had changed in the past six weeks. So their only course of action was to slip it through. If it faced another roll-call vote, it would have lost again."
One of the reasons the measure was adopted, Michel said, was that Common Cause, the public interest lobby, had said it would have no objection to the $18,198 limit, which is 30 percent of the current congressional annual salary.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, said recently that his group never approved a permanent increase of 30 percent. He said Common Cause did support a one-year increase to 30 percent if other ethical reforms were adopted at the same time. "They snuck through that 30 percent," Wertheimer said. "They pulled this incredible fast one on one of the last days of the session. That was the most outrageous legislative process I've ever seen. It should go down in history."
While a flurry of congressmen complained about the unanimous consent action, the House received a benefit it refused to give itself in the open: its limits on outside earnings were doubled from 15 to 30 percent, effective immediately.
On March 2, 1977, the day after a regular $10,700 congressional pay increase took effect, House Speaker O'Neill strongly supported the code of ethics, requiring a 15 percent limit on outside income, calling it "the heart and soul of this entire package."
Chris Matthews, O'Neill's aide, said the speaker's actions in moving the Murtha resolution were not inconsistent with O'Neill's previous statements on ethics. "The amount of the outside income has been eroded by inflation during a period of time when congressional salaries have not increased with the inflation rate," Matthews said.
Changing congressional tax deductions has been an equally sensitive issue. While many lawmakers felt the old $3,000 limit on tax deductions had become obsolete, there was no formal action to change it in 30 years. It was Majority Whip Stevens who almost singlehandedly took on the issue.
On Sept. 24, Stevens introduced a measure on the floor of the Senate to eliminate the $3,000 tax deduction limit for members of both the House and the Senate.
Stevens said he spoke with numerous senators and congressmen who felt strongly that the tax rules should be changed. "For some reason or another I seem to be the point man on these issues."
For years Stevens had proposed legislation to increase the salaries of legislators, as well as for about 46,000 career federal employes at executive pay levels. He feels strongly, he said, that the higher pay levels are necessary to maintain high levels of competence in the federal government.
Stevens said that he and many members of Congress feel they should be paid at corporate executive level salaries. "We are the board of directors for an enormous, enormous institution," he said.
The congressional tax measure Stevens introduced on Sept. 24 was one of three measures affecting compensation he put forward. He also called for the lifting of the $25,000 limit senators were permitted to earn in honoraria outside speeches. But the measure that was most important to Stevens--"my primary concern," he said--was a proposal to increase the pay of federal employes at the executive pay level.
The proposal to lift the $3,000 tax deduction limit for lawmakers sparked more than an hour of debate on the Senate floor on Sept. 24.
Stevens argued that the $3,000 limit was obviously outdated, and was an unfair burden on legislators. He said that such restrictions would discourage average Americans from seeking office, and would lead to increasing numbers of wealthy people filling the seats.
Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.) agreed that "all of us have made financial and personal sacrifices to be here. However, there is one important point my distinguished colleague overlooks . . . . That point is choice. All of us made the choice to be in public service to our country . . . ."
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), added: "At a time when the president and Congress are asking for sacrifice from others who receive benefits or payments from the federal government, it is neither fair nor wise to take any action that has the effect of benefiting members of Congress from the federal treasury."
By the debate's end, four senators spoke in opposition to the measure, and only Stevens defended it.
But on a roll-call vote, the measure was adopted, 50 to 48.
Stevens won approval for his two other amendments as well. The Senate voted 48 to 44 to eliminate the $25,000 limit for honoraria on speeches, and voted 50 to 45 to increase pay for federal employes at the executive level.
Stevens was doing well with the direct approach.
All three measures were attached to a resolution that both the House and the Senate had to adopt as law by Sept. 30 since that resolution appropriated the funds to run the government in the new fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.
But before the resolution became law, the amendments had to be approved by a joint committee of senators and congressmen, called a conference committee.
The chief spokesman for those issues for the Senate was Stevens. Fazio was the chief spokesman for the House.
Both men had been outspoken in their support for increases in compensation for federal employes. But Fazio argued that Stevens' amendments didn't offer enough for House members.
"There was something in there for the Senate the lifting of the $25,000 honoraria ceiling and for the executive level employes a pay raise ," Fazio said. "The only way we were going to approve those was to give something to the members congressmen ."
After a long negotiation session, Fazio asked Stevens to include a pay raise provision for the legislators in the resolution. Stevens said that wouldn't be approved by the Senate.
Said Fazio of the Senate motives: "They didn't want to take the heat for the pay increase which would amount to 4.8 percent just under $3,000 --which in fact they could make in one honorarium."
Stevens argued that lifting the $3,000 tax deduction limit was actually something that members of the House needed more than senators.
Fazio said that was not enough.
There were more problems. Not all congressmen on the conference committee agreed with Fazio. Rep. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.), a member of the conference committee, was opposed to any form of compensation increase for congressmen.
"I represent 600,000 people and I can't name 10 who would be in favor of a pay increase for members or a tax break. I think that covers it," Bevill said in an interview.
The conference committee could not resolve all the differences. Finally it approved the tax deduction change and the lifting of the $25,000 limit for Senate speeches. But it eliminated the pay raise for executive level employes.
Fazio said the federal employe pay increase, would, in effect, be "held hostage"--that is, would not be approved by the House--until the House was given a pay raise.
The compensation issues were scheduled to come up again in November, when that same conference committee would meet again to discuss another resolution.
Thursday, Sept. 30, was the last day of the fiscal year, and both the House and Senate had to work until midnight to approve appropriations to keep the government running. Both congressional benefit measures that came out of the conference committee--tax deductions and outside Senate earnings--were attached as amendments to the overall federal appropriations resolution that Congress was considering that night.
At 10:15 p.m., the congressional benefits measures were introduced on the House floor by Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.). Conte and Fazio explained the measures in about five minutes.
Two representatives, Edward J. Derwinski (R-Ill.) and Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), argued that the measures did not belong in an end-of-the-year appropriations resolution. Derwinski called the actions "parliamentary gimmicks."
At 10:30, O'Neill called for a voice vote to approve the recommendations, as a package, from the conference committee. The measures passed by voice vote with no congresssmen recorded as having voted for their tax deduction change.
When the Senate had voted in September to eliminate the $3,000 tax deduction ceiling for legislators, Stevens explained that they, like all citizens, would have to itemize and justify every tax deduction, though there would now be no limit on how much could be legitimately claimed in deductions associated with their congresional work. But many senators said they found the new rules confusing and on Dec. 16, Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), introduced an amendment to "clarify" the new law.
Under the amended rules, a legislator who owns a home would be allowed to deduct $50 per "congressional day"--which comes to about 250 days a year--and a renter would be permitted to deduct $75 per congressional day. These provisions amount to about $13,000 in annual tax deductions for homeowners, and $18,000 for renters. These automatic deductions would not be subject to Internal Revenue Service audit.
The amendment was attached to the "black lung bill," a popular bipartisan measure to help coal miners with the disease. The amendment and the bill passed both the Senate and House by overwhelming votes.
In continuing negotiations in formal and informal meetings that ended in December, Stevens pushed for the executive level pay increase, and Fazio pushed for a pay raise for congressmen. They finally reached a compromise agreement in early December: the executive level workers would get their raise; while legislators would not get a raise, they would instead be granted retroactivity in the new income tax rules which would take effect Jan. 1, 1981, rather than Jan. 1, 1982, as had originally been the case, thus adding at least $10,000 in tax deductions for 1981.
"At this rate, this Congress is going to go down in history as the Congress that called on the American people to sacrifice while members were busily feathering their own nests. Is that really the message we want to send back to our constituents?" -- Rep. Clarence E. Miller (R-Ohio)
The newly adopted tax and outside income rules were quickly greeted by critical newspaper editorials across the country. Many congressmen, returning from the Christmas recess, said they heard recurring complaints from voters about the congressional tax changes.
Despite the 13 bills introduced in recent weeks to repeal the legislation, Stevens, the man who introduced the tax legislation, feels strongly that the law should stand.
"I think what I did was right," Stevens said in an interview. "I'll defend it anywhere. If this issue defeats me, I'll be the happiest guy in the world. I'll go home."