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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Pay Grab IV — Victory and Aftermath

On February 7th, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., rose on the floor of the Senate to say these words: “This is the hour that many of my colleagues hoped would never arrive. A strategy that many had counted on to put the President’s pay recommendations into effect without a vote in the other body has unraveled.”

Indeed, the people perceived, protested and prevailed to have the Reagan Salary Grab defeated by overwhelming majorities (about 9 to 1) in both the House and the Senate. This victory is a long time coming and its consequences for the Congress and the surging self-confidence of those many Americans, who showed Washington who is boss on this matter, will not be modest.

For years, citizens have been told that they should let the bureaucrats and experts handle this or that problem. For years they paid over and over again for that “we’ll take care of it” attitude. Most recently, Washington’s bureaucrats and experts have informed the taxpayers of the $100 billion bill for the savings and loan collapses. They tell the taxpayers that the “cleanup” bill for the sustained mess at the nation’s nuclear weapons plants and their radioactive spills will be $150 billion, not to mention the cancer cases.

Well, this time people were not about to be told that they were not experts on advancing greed and tyranny in Washington’s officialdom. A Reagan proposal to raise the salaries of 2,700 top officials in the Congress, Judiciary and Executive branches by at least $45,000 a year, or a 51 percent increase to $135,000, was slated to become law if both houses of Congress did not turn it down by February 7th midnight.

By that day, an avalanche of protest — letters, telegrams, telephone calls and editorial commentary — had piled on the Senators and Representatives in their home district offices and in Washington. Moreover, the protests were increasing geometrically.

When the dust settled, three points became clear even to the bitter members of the Congress who trudged onto the floor to eat humble pie. One was that voters send their Representatives to vote, not to duck votes and take a pay increase. Second, people do not want their political rulers to become too distant from them economically and the present gap of five times the average salary is broader than ever in U.S. history. Third, voters like some performance before giving their rulers a raise. Most decidedly, a massive deficit, critical program cutbacks at a time of government giveaways to corporate business, and scandals galore do not exactly spell performance.

Rep. Steny Hoyer — who owns a mere seven recent model cars — argued that higher pay was necessary to keep and recruit talent. But these top jobs are political appointments, not selected on talent and merit. Furthermore, most people think that salaries in the upper one or two percent of income earners are quite enough for a decent standard of living.

Now, the citizenry should complete this protest by reforming the avoid-and-¬≠duck schemes for getting salary increases. The Congress needs to revert to the way raises were considered and voted on until 1967 — public hearings, followed by a recorded vote and signature by the President. Add to that reform the James Madison principle which would have any Congressional raises go into effect only after the next election and you will have a restoration of accountability to the voters. After all, the Constitution does say that compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives shall be “ascertained by law.” I believe the founding fathers meant that voting be the way to ascertain by law.

Maybe the citizen energies unleashed by this Pay Grab provocation can roll on to Congressional reform of campaign finance abuses, outside income from lobbyists, runaway Congressional pension costs and other shadows on Capitol Hill.

During the debate on the Pay Grab, some members of the House blamed citizen activists in Washington and radio talk show hosts for the heat. While some of us provided the magnifying glass, it was the American people who provided the sunshine.