A few months before the Congressional elections of 1816, the members of Congress voted themselves a pay increase. The public outrage was jolting. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “There has never been an instance before of so unanimous an opinion of the people.”
Even though the Congress quickly repealed the compensation law before election day, almost two-thirds of the entire Congress was retired by the voters. Between now and February 17, the House of Representatives and the Senate will be pondering whether to “skulk from the vote,” in Jefferson’s phrase, and let their salaries and those of federal judges and top government officials be raised, in accordance with former President Ford’s recommendations, or whether they will vote to deny such pay raises.
If Congress does nothing, the pay raises go into effect. A negative vote by either House is enough to block the increases. Such maneuvers are permitted under a 1967 law that Congress enacted to avoid the political embarrassment of having to, vote for a pay raise for themselves.
This law provides for the establishment of a special Commission on Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Salaries every four years.
Such a commission, headed by New York investment banker Peter Peterson, made its prescribed report to former President Ford on December 2, 1976. The Peterson group recommended that members of Congress be given salary increases to $57,500 (up 29 per cent), that federal judges be to $65,000 (up 45 per cent) and that some 20,000 major Executive branch officials receive increases ranging from $945 to $9,400 a year.
The commission coupled its salary proposals with a suggested Code of Public Conduct for these officials so that people could have more confidence in their government.
On January 17, Ford transmitted to Congress most of these recommendations, with the support of then President-elect Carter. In the days prior to that Presidential message, Mr. Peterson assembled a “Citizens Committee” to raise some $100,000 for newspaper advertisements urging the people to support the pay raise and code of ethics proposals.
There is no guarantee that the Congress will link the two proposals, however. And there are serious questions being raised by a number of representatives and senators as to the legal and ethical propriety of the 1967 law which permits members of Congress to duck the responsibility of voting directly on any change in their own salaries.
It could be that this handful of legislators knows Congressional, history back to 1816 only too well.
There also are other objections to these very substantial salary increases. Should judges, members of Congress and high government officials make five times more than the average American family makes that is paying their salaries through heavy taxation? Isn’t it enough to make three and a half times more?
This is quite apart from the ample pensions, perquisites, expense accounts, and prospects of lucrative private positions should these elected and appointed government officials decide their important offices are not worth the dollars.
It is argued by the Pentagon group that the raises are long overdue, that federal judges are leaving the bench for richer law practices, that qualified people will be attracted to government service only if something is done. Members of Congress, it is said, have only received a 5 per cent increase since 1969 but it is not mentioned in the Peterson ads that in that year they received a lump sum increase of $15,000 — more than most workers earn now.
There are additional considerations requiring a fuller public debate before any precipitous back-door action is taken on the Ford-Carter proposals.
Should Congress enact a tough code of public conduct for itself and the – Executive Branch before voting on pay increases? Haven’t Watergate, milk funds, Korean payments, etc., which have eroded public confidence in government, amounted to an overwhelming case for this being done?
Would not this large salary hike help to incite demands for higher prices and wages in the private sector? Senator James Allen (D.- Ala .) finally said something sensible the other day:
“Government officials would be hard pressed to call for restraint after having set the worst possible example in managing their own affairs.”
Or, as Congressman Larry Pressler (R.-S.D.) put it: “If the people at the top (of government) do it — why not everybody?”
There is, in addition, the argument that keeping salaries at levels only three or four times higher than the average American family’s would tend to attract more dedicated public servants. Keeping the lid on might keep down the number of people who are on corporate assignment in Washington or who see government jobs as a stepping-stone to lush corporate positions or law firm practices.
What is needed is more public discussion of these points and more voter response to the Congress before February 17. So, if there ever is a time when your representative or senator is going to be sensitive to your opinion, it is now. Write them and watch how they reply.