Like a brooding cloud over Capitol Hill, the Congressional pay increase issue just won’t blow away.
The spectacle of Senators and Representatives raising their already generous salaries and benefits another $12,000 (to $57,500) by not voting earlier this year is fraught with images of overreaching and hypocrisy. In its quantitative clarity, the pay increase, together with media reports of Congressional corruption, loose expense accounts and scandals, is also a catalyst for other legitimate citizen grievances regarding Congressional performance. In February, House Speaker Tip O’Neill conceded that the Representatives avoided a vote on their salary increase because most of them would have voted it down when deep in their hearts they wanted the extra money.
THE SPEAKER’S HUNCH was correct. Calls made to all 435 members of the House of Representatives have produced the following tally: 273 Representatives against the pay increase, 110 Representatives for the raise, and the remaining members either undecided or unavailable for comment. A few of the “no” responses indicated that they were giving their increases to charity while some of the “yes” votes noted conditions such as an ethics code.
It is highly possible, therefore, that if the citizens of this country can persuade their inhibited legislators to come out and vote on the pay increase, there would be no pay increase. The Representatives and Senators would have to get along on $44,600 plus ample insurance and pension benefits, expense allowances and a variety of other perquisites or personal subsidies.
Few things today unite all shades of public opinion more readily than the Congressional pay hike. This feeling is not just due to its size, coming after a similar large raise in 1969 and one cost-of-living adjustment. Nor is it due to the way it was done with the legislators ducking the vote. Rather it revealed a kind of aggregate duplicity — telling the public they favored holding down federal spending and inflation while doing just the opposite for their own pay increases.
There is also the belief that Congress is getting too remote from the average American family trying to make it on an average of $14,000 per year. As one Californian put it: “We always knew they were courted and funded by the wealthy, but now they want to join the wealthy classes themselves.”
Some thoughtful members of the House sense this mood. They advocate an open vote and want to make any approved pay increase effective after the next election. This would give the voters a chance to judge, as they did in the 16 Congressional elections when two thirds the Congress were retired, in part because of public outrage over a salary hike.
AN OPEN VOTE would also promote a deeper pre-election evaluation of incumbents. For example, Rep. John Erlenborn (R.-Ill.) poses as an inflation-fighting conservative against bureaucratic spenders, yet he favors the Congressional pay raise. While he supports millions 1 r members of Congress, he has vehemently opposed legislation to establish a $15 million consumer protection agency whose non-regulatory mission would include keeping consumer prices down by opposing economic regulations that subsidize big business at the expense of 200 million consumers.
Well, members of Congress are collecting the letters and the calls about the pay increase. In a few weeks they will have to vote the doll: appropriations for themselves. Your opinion will count if you communicate it to your members of Congress.