Politics, especially in the close quarters of a legislative body, where your word had better be your bond, is a relentlessly personal business. Over the long haul, character and decency mean more to a legislator's standing among his colleagues than do left or right voting scores. In the present House, only a small handful of members are as respected as California Republican Clair Burgener, who at 61 is retiring, undefeated.
Conservative Burgener passionately urges the Congress to spend more money -- on itself in the form of higher salaries. Since 1977, while the consumer price index has climbed 60 percent and private-sector white- collar pay 53 percent, congressional salaries have been increased just 5.5 percent. The inevitable result of this salary "freeze," according to Burgener, is that Congress will become "a refuge for millionaires and ne'er-do- wells." The millionaires are already arriving. Even by Congress' own deliberately vague disclosure forms, it can be safely stated that there are at least 17 millionaires in the Senate and 24 in the House.
Unless congressional salaries are raised substantially and soon, Capitol Hill will be the scene of class warfare between the wealthy members of independent means and the unwealthy members of modest means. For House members, for example, there are no limits on the amount of outside "unearned" income -- stocks, bonds, real estate -- but there are severe restrictions on any outside "earned" income -- law practice, speeches, articles. The reasoning must go something like this: time is more important than money; that's why a congressman who spends an hour and earns $750 for a speech to the B&E Corporation is somehow compromised, and his colleague, who collects $75,000 in dividends from the same outfit, retains his independence and integrity.
There is snobbery in the present system and hypocrisy. And most of both is found in two places: among the independently wealthy and in the Senate. In the Senate, the members have seen fit to remove their own legal ceiling on speech fees they can earn in a year. This, for the senators, who get more press coverage and more speech invitations than House members, effectively gives them a raise. In 1981, 25 senators earned more than $25,000 in speech fees.
Congress both needs and deserves a large pay increase. The alternatives are not pleasant ones--an American House of Lords, its members insulated by wealth and privilege, and a House of Hustlers, filled with ethically ambiguous folks on the lookout for a profitable swap for their vote.
Congress will have a chance to vote on the pay issue before Christmas. The House floor leader in behalf of it is California Democrat Vic Fazio. Fazio had an opponent this fall who charged he was the leading advocate in Congress for pay raises and who pledged, if elected, to take a $10,000 salary cut. For members of Congress concerned about their constituents, Fazio won with 64 percent of the vote. It can be done. Vote for what you believe you're worth. Kill the hypocrisy.