An embarrassed House of Representatives abruptly reversed itself yesterday, voting overwhelmingly to rescind a rules change that would have given each member the right to earn an extra $7,510 a year from outside speaking and writing activities.
The undoing of the rules change bore some resemblance to the original action Tuesday in that it happened swiftly and with no debate. The differences yesterday were that the House floor was crowded with lawmakers, and all of them understood exactly what was going on.
Yesterday's vote restored a section of the House rules that limits what lawmakers can earn from outside activities, including speaking and writing honoraria, to an amount equal to 30 percent of their annual government salaries -- that is, $22,530 a year in outside income based on the current congressional salary of $75,100.
On Tuesday, in a lightning legislative attack by Rep. John P. Mur-tha (D-Pa.), the 30 percent limit was overturned. With the apparent approval of Democratic and Republican leaders, Murtha won "unanimous consent" from the handful of lawmakers on the floor at the time for a resolution that struck down this section of the House rules and said the only limit on outside income was that set in law.
The effect was to raise the limit to 40 percent of salary, or $30,040 a year. That limit, set in an omnibus spending bill enacted by Congress last December, in practice applied only to the Senate, where internal rules set no limits on this type of outside income. Senior House members, who are also in demand as speechmakers, have chafed under the 30 percent restriction in their chamber's rules.
Questions also were raised yesterday over whether Murtha's resolution, perhaps unintentionally, had lifted all limits on other types of outside earned income, such as legal and professional fees.
When the election-year implications of the Murtha resolution became clear, members of both parties began jockeying to gain credit for undoing the Murtha maneuver.
While the key vote to restore the old rule was an overwhelming 333 to 68, there was an underlying tone of resentment that reflected tension between the House and the Senate -- and within the House. One theme, voiced by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and others, was that House members lack the political courage to vote themselves what they consider an adequate salary to reduce reliance on outside income.
"I hope members someday will have the courage to stand up and face these issues and vote on them, up or down," said House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who raised no objection when Murtha proposed his resolution Tuesday.
Senators generally are able to earn far more outside income from speaking and writing than are the often little-known members of the House rank and file. Most House members are largely dependent on their government salaries, and would gladly trade a lower honoraria limit for a higher paycheck.
The exception to this in the House is a relative handful of lawmakers, including the leaders of both parties and senior members of such key committees as Ways and Means, who are much in demand as speakers at trade associations and other special interest gatherings.
In 1984, according to the House Democratic Study Group, 72 House members were close to or exceeded the 30 percent limit and were required by House rules to donate the excess earnings to charity.
In yesterday's vote, eight of the 22 top outside earners in effect opposed restoration of the 30 percent limit. They were Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), James J. Howard (D-N.J.), John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.). Their 1984 outside earnings, according to Common Cause, the self-described "citizens lobby," ranged from $35,100 for Waxman to $25,500 for Gibbons.
The attempts to undo the Murtha resolution began as soon as the House convened yesterday. Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) tried to accomplish it through a procedural motion, but the Democratic leadership defeated this on a vote of 215 to 178.
Earlier in the day, according to congressional sources, Democratic whips made clear to O'Neill that they would not sit by while the Republicans stole the limelight as the champions of the 30 percent limit. "We should lead the effort to undo what was done yesterday," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) was quoted as telling the speaker.
The scene shifted to the Rules Committee, where the only thing resembling a debate of the issue took place. The panel met to consider a resolution sponsored by Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to overturn the Murtha resolution.
"It was the wrong thing to do, the wrong time to do it and the wrong way to approach it," Durbin said of the House action Tuesday.
Not everyone agreed. Rep. James H. Quillen (R-Tenn.) said rules limiting outside income were "basically wrong" because they "take away initiative."
The committee approved the measure with only Lott, Quillen and Rep. Gene Taylor (R-Mo.) opposing it. The House voted by more than the two-thirds majority needed to consider it immediately, then adopted the resolution with no debate and an unrecorded voice vote.
O'Neill insisted that he knew nothing about the Murtha resolution when it was whipped through by unanimous consent Tuesday. Asserting that congressional salaries should be "a minimum of $100,000" a year, he said he supported both a pay raise and a higher honoraria limit for House members.
"What's it going to be -- a rich man's institution?" O'Neill said. "I think that's wrong."
Asked why the Murtha resolution was about to be overturned on the floor, the speaker said, "It's the will of a majority of the House."