CONGRESSMEN and senators are among the few people in our society who set their own pay. You might expect that they would be paid lavishly, but if you listen to a few of them talk on the subject, you get just the opposite impression. Yes, the salary itself--$60,662.50--sounds impressive, they say. Yes, it can be supplemented by honoraria and other earned outside income. And, yes, there are some perquisites, such as free parking and subsidized haircuts.
But, they insist, the money doesn't go very far. They have to maintain two residences. They live most of the year in one of the nation's most expensive metropolitan areas. And they haven't had much of a raise for quite a while. Back in 1977, the congressional salary was raised as part of a package that included ethics legislation. Since that time, the salary has gone up 5.5 percent, while the consumer price index has risen 62 percent. It is important to note before you die of a broken heart, of course, that this was Congress' own doing: Congress voted against pay raises in 1978, 1980, and 1981.
Today, the House of Representatives will have a chance to vote on the issue again. The case for some kind of raise is strong. Congressmen should not necessarily be paid as much as people with comparable responsibilities in the private sector. No one is forced to run for the job, after all, and no one should get rich from it. But no one should get poor from it either.
The point is that the pay should be raised straightforwardly. Last year, Congress tried to raise members' disposable income by (unsuccessfully) increasing their tax deductions for second homes and by (successfully) raising the amounts of allowed outside earned income. Such measures help those members who least need help and erode even further the public's confidence in Congress. It is far better to vote, as the House will today, directly on the amount of the salary. That procedure also helps the thousands of top-level federal employees whose salaries are linked to congressmen's. They don't have the perquisites and chances for outside income congressmen have. And the lid that has effectively been placed on federal salaries produces anomalous and unfair results that hurt the government and the public.
How much of a raise should Congress get? The Appropriations Committee would restore the raises Congress voted down in previous years, keeping the salary roughly in line with inflation since 1977. That means that Congress would be voting itself a raise of some 27 percent at a time of 10.8 percent unemployment. The congressional pay raise is inevitably a highly visible figure, and a huge percentage increase -- even to compensate for years of no increase at all -- sends the wrong signal to many who are being exhorted to accept very modest wage increases.
Congress would be better advised to reduce the amount of the raise -- which its procedures allow -- and then vote for it. Some congressmen feel they might as well get as much as possible, since they will get political flak for any raise. We think it's more important for congressmen to get into the habit of voting, straightforwardly, for routine and un-Gargantuan salary increases. They should be prepared to argue to their constituents that they're worth the money, and in the long run the spectacle of voting relatively small raises each year is less dangerous and a less destructive example than the spectacle of voting a large raise in one fell swoop.