In the end of-the-year rush, several senators have managed to sneak into the continuing resolution a provision that will allow them, but probably not their counterparts in the House, to earn some $7,500 a year more in honoraria and speakers' fees than they are allowed at present. This was accomplished through a tricky maneuver: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) inserted a provision applying the Senate's rule on outside income to House members; to get rid of that, House members agreed to raise the statutory limit on honoraria from 30 to 40 percent of the congressional salary. This would apply to senators, but the House would still be bound by the 30 percent limit imposed by its own rules. This result has several unfortunate effects.
First, it reduces pressure for members of Congress to vote themselves straightforward pay increases. The only way for Congress to ensure itself a reasonable set of pay increases is to get into the habit of voting them in small increments every year or two. Instead, Congress waits until the amount of the raise gets so large as to be politically dangerous. The last vote on the pay increase was in the 1982 lame-duck session. The continuing resolution sets up a new pay commission which will recommend pay increases in 1987 that can be rejected by vote of both houses and signature of the president; but who can be sure even that procedure will work? In the meantime, allowing senators to quietly increase their incomes through higher honoraria reduces pressure for an open and affirmative vote on the pay issue.
The second thing wrong with this action is its effect, or lack of effect, on the top level of federal salaries, which is tied to congressional pay. Senior government employees cannot, as senators will be able to under this provision, go out and earn the equivalent of 40 percent of their salary in speaker's fees from organizations interested in legislation.
That of course is the third thing wrong with this. Members of Congress should be paid a fair salary by the taxpayers, rather than rely on income from those interested in the outcome of legislation. The limits in current law are not ideal, but the change now included in the continuing resolution goes in the wrong direction.
It is of course difficult under the rules of both houses to raise what is, in dollar terms, such a small issue in such a large bill. But it would be seemly if the Senate at least had the courage to stand up and be counted for or against a change in the current rules, which would allow senators to increase their income not from the voters to whom they are accountable but from others who too often have an ax to grind.