ON DEC. 13 of last year, Sen. Steven Symms (R- Idaho) did his part to balance his family's budget by earning honoraria--fees for giving speeches--of $350 each from 10 different groups. It's nice work if you can get it, and every senator can. That's not simply because they're great orators or because each of them is a great repository of wisdom. It's because the people to whom the speeches are given are interested in government action, and believe it's not going to do them any harm, when they go up to Capitol Hill, to have paid honoraria to senators who sit on key committees.

This tawdry business goes on because last year, when the House of Representatives had the guts to vote itself a straightforward pay increase, the Senate did not. Instead, the Senate reiterated its 1981 vote to remove all limits on honoraria. It was a kind of backdoor pay increase, with the money paid not by the general treasury but by private organizations.

Not all senators accept such money. An even dozen had virtually no honoraria in 1981 and 1982 or donated all such earnings to charity; the dozen included several wealthy senators, but also several of modest means--Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John Stennis (D-Miss.) and Henry Jackson (D-Wash.). But five senators netted more in 1982 from honoraria, after charitable contributions, than they did from their senatorial salaries. They include Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) $92,270 net; Robert Dole (R- Kan.) $84,250; Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) $63,700; Jake Garn (R-Utah) $60,799, and David Durenberger (R-Minn.) $60,700.

We don't say these men are selling their votes. The five just mentioned are among the most strong- minded of senators. Some of them would tell you they must earn more than their $60,662 salaries in order to maintain two houses and support large families. But the right way to do that is to raise the salary. The importance of honoraria to many senators creates the appearance of undue influence and the suspicion that legislative decisions are up for auction. The House has wisely removed such suspicion by limiting outside earnings and raising the salary instead. The Senate should do the same.