Isn't it about time members of Congress learned that there's no easy way to change the ground rules governing their own income? It may not be painless, or even politically smart, to stand up and be counted for a pay raise, but at least it's straightforward and above board. And with visitors' and press galleries full, with closed-circuit television bringing the proceedings to every Hill office and cable affording coverage to millions of homes and offices, they can hardly do less.
This week, the House embarrassed itself. On Tuesday morning, shortly after the opening prayer, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) offered a few quick words of explanation, and in less than a minute his colleagues gave unanimous consent to an important amendment to the House rules. The change would allow members to earn outside income of up to 40 percent of their salaries instead of the 30 percent now allowed. Senators use a 40 percent rule, and the change was explained in terms of bringing the rules into "closer compliance with the Senate rules." Legislators earn $75,100, so the new rule would cap outside earnings at $30,040 instead of $22,530. Naturally, as soon as word got around about the rules change (it took about 30 seconds, we would imagine), members rushed to the floor to denounce the leadership, deplore the action and demand reconsideration. After 24 hours of parliamentary hemming and hawing, the whole thing was reversed on Wednesday. There are two problems with this sordid exercise. First, the proposal was inequitable. It would have benefited only those well-known or influential members who can earn more than $20,000 a year in speaking fees. In 1981, Congress made another backdoor attempt to increase income by voting themselves business tax deductions for all the expenses of living hington. That was a terrific boon to members with large depreciable houses in this town and much smaller potatoes for those who live modestly. That particular ploy didn't survive for long, and it shouldn't have. Complicated tax provisions and formulas to increase outside earnings will always aid some members more than others and diminish support for across-the-board pay increases.
The second problem with the attempted rules change is that it was sneaky. No hearings, no written report, no real debate on the floor or off. Even though the issue did not involve public money, an ethical rule was at stake, and it was inevitable that a change would be noticed and challenged. Members of Congress, with few exceptions, are talented men and women with staggering responsibilities who work hard under conditions of unusual stress. They deserve to be well paid, and they should have the courage to be straightforward, evenhanded and upfront about their ow compensation.