Legislators often speak with, forked tongues on inflation. They relish campaigning before the folks against the “cruel hidden tax” of inflation. But after the election their dreams often turn inward–to raising their own salaries.
The latest action started in Ohio and Illinois. There the lawmakers decided to beat the inflation of the ’80s right now. Ohio’s solons voted themselves a 28.6 percent rise to $22,500 a year. Their Illinois counterparts overrode the governor’s veto to give themselves a 40 percent increase to $28,000 a year. Chicago’s aldermen are going for a 60 percent raise.
Most of these legislators have a business or profession on the side. Lawyers and insurance agents, for example, are very prominently represented in state legislatures. Their business income generally is enhanced by their status as legislators. But restraint is not known to be a byproduct of their privileged position.
Now comes Alfred E. Kahn, President Carter’s chief inflation-fighter, calling for restraints. The Illinois and Ohio pay increases are “outrageous,” he says, charging that they violate the administration’s 7 percent voluntary guideline. Although conceding the federal government’s lack of authority over state or local legislators’ pay hikes, Kahn demanded that they be rolled back.
He called a press conference to underline his indignation. “At a time when many Americans have already made sacrifices, and many more are preparing to do so, this kind of action by elected leaders of the people is irresponsible,” he declared.
President Carter supported Kahn. In criticizing the Ohio and Illinois legislatures, he asserted that elected officials “ought to set an example.”
Where was President. Carter when he could have set an example in early 1977? Those were the days when Congress was trying to sneak through, and finally did, a whopping 29 percent pay hike which drove congressional salaries to $57,500 a year. This raise came after a 42 percent pay raise in 1969 and a 5 percent increase in 1975. Add to these sums the ample fringe benefits and allowances and it is clear that the members of Congress have more than kept up with inflation.
Instead of challenging the great congressional salary grab of 1977, President Carter approved the recommendation for such an increase that was made by President Ford three days before he left office. What is more, Mr. Carter permitted top White House staffers to have a sizeable raise that rocketed their salaries into the $44,000-to-$50,000-plus range.
President Carter lost a highly visible opportunity to display his seriousness about inflation when he failed to oppose these salary increases. State legislators can say they are doing no worse than Congress did last year. Who started the upward rush of legislators’ pay increases and who is paying huge amounts on buildings and facilities? Congress, that’s who.
The present course of action is not obscure. If the White House wants to set an example for the country, it can start by asking Congress to roll back its salary increase. Legislators should be able to live on $44,600 a year (plus fringe benefits and allowances) if the average American family is expected to make it on $14,000 a year.
The affluent heads of DuPont, General Motors and Exxon could not ignore that kind of example and it would all ripple down in spreading anti-inflationary spirit against high prices.
To obtain cooperation from the public in the fight against inflation requires that elected officials reflect a sense of fairness and sincerity.
Mr. Kahn spoke of the need for an “informed public opinion” to restrain the lawmakers from feathering their own nests. Readers who agree may wish to send for a report on congressional salaries and benefits entitled “Salary Grab.” Write to P. 0. Box 19312, Washington, D. C., 20036 and include 30 cents for postage.