There is alwalys a hassle over raising the pay of federal workers -- a task thought to be unnecessary if not morally objectionable in many parts of the country. But while the average citizen might be envious of a local postal worker, meat inspector or park ranger, he does not seek to retaliate against these supposedly more fortunate neighbors. Members of Congress, however, who both authorize and receive raises, are another matter entirely. Furious taxpayers can and do penalize lawmakers who vote themselves increases, a fact that complicates pay decisions not only in the legislative branch but for judges and high officials in the executive as well.
Because members of Congress are reluctant to cast an unpopular vote, and because they are also displeased by the prospect that other federal workers and judges might make higher salaries, all pay scales at the top of the government have been affected. In 1967, legislation was enacted that was supposed to deal with the problem. A commission was established and directed to meet every four years -- it is known as the Quadrennial Commission -- to recommend salary levels for 3,147 top government officials, including members of Congress. These proposals were to be submitted to the president, who would then make recommendations to Congress that were to become effective unless disapproved within 30 days by either house.
This year, the Quadrennial Commission met to grapple with two problems -- the legislative mechanism for adjusting top government salaries and the practical task of setting those levels. It did half a job. The Justice Department had advised the commission that, because of a Supreme Court decision two years ago, the 1967 procedures that allow a form of one house veto must be amended. The commission proposes fairly straightforward solution: require both houses to disapprove a proposed pay increase and the president to sign the disapproval.
But on the really important issue of specific salary recommendations, the commission took an easy way out. Lamenting that legislators, judges and federal executives are "critically underpaid," the commission found it "futile," nevertheless, to make specific recommendations for increases. Instead, the members suggest that when the statutory change has been made, another commission be appointed to set pay levels and make recommendations -- you guessed it -- right after the next election.
Congress can quickly and easily change the 1967 law, and if the commission had done its job the new pay scales could have been considered this year. As it is, the commission's report -- which contains only 12 pages of text -- supplies little of the data decision makers will need. There is no information, for example, about salaries paid to state and local judges or to governors and heads of state agencies. That would have been far more useful than an observation on major-league baseball salaries, which is made. There is no discussion about the relationship between high pension levels and low salaries in affecting a senior executive's decision to leave government service. Nor is there even an acknowledgment that legislators are allowed outside earnings but the others are not. The commission does not go out of existence until Oct. 1 and its final report is not due until the end of the year. There is still time to prepare a complete and more useful report.