House Speaker Tom Foley (Dem. Wash.) is a most unlikely authoritarian. Soft-spoken and quasi-scholarly, Foley would not ordinarily be associated with lock-out Congressional procedures and swift-railroading of his proposals through the House. But this week, he was producing a giant sour turkey before Thanksgiving in the form of a $30,000 salary increase for his House members plus a huge boost in the already very generous pension benefits. A thin gruel of ethics reform provided the sheep’s clothing for this legislative wolf.
No decent interval was provided the American people to digest, appraise and react to a subject of great interest to them. Foley wants to introduce the bill on Wednesday and pass it through the House on Thursday. No House Committees were allowed to hold public hearings for citizens to testify before. Foley believed such hearings were not necessary. Instead of following historic traditions of Committee hearings, Committee reports to the House and then House debate and vote, Foley declared that it was sufficient that he and the House leadership have been “talking about it for weeks and weeks.”
The reason for the rush is clear. Foley and cohorts know that the vast majority of the people are against these salary increases. To the ruled who pay the salaries of their rulers, $89,500 a year plus benefits and perks worth another $25,000 are quite a living wage. Members of Congress, judges and high government officials are in the top one percent of income earners in America and their jobs are very steady with no layoffs or plant closings.
A 48 percent salary increase since 1981 for these positions has more than kept up with inflation, in contrast to their freezing the federal minimum wage at $3.35 from 1981 until 1990 when it goes up a few dimes.
Little understood in the federal Washington, D.C. is the widespread expectation around the country that Congressional and Executive pay should have some relation to reasonable performance. For the federal officialdom to preside over massive triple deficits, waste, corruption, bailouts of business crooks and giveaways and then have the hubris to ask for a raise is too much for most citizens struggling hard daily to make a fraction of the top government salaries they are paying.
Moreover, most people do not buy the argument that given current levels, higher salaries secure more competent, dedicated and trustworthy people. What does work is a working environment that enables civil servants to be and do their best for their country under enlightened leadership. The several thousand Executive branch political appointees and federal judges are chosen on the basis of their political affiliation and loyalties. It is doubtful whether a triple salary would have brought the Pentagon or the Department of Interior anyone other than a Weinberger or a Watt.
While Foley and Minority Leader Bob Michel (Rep. Ill.) are pushing for higher salaries as a condition for giving up most fees for addressing lobby groups, they are huddling with their colleagues to decide on across the board cuts under Gramm-Rudman which will include reduction in infant nutrition services, cancer prevention, safety, education and other program needs of many people. Government leaders who rule by such double standards weaken their ability to rule fairly and undermine the public respect required for a functioning democracy.
The message Messrs. Foley and Michel are sending to the American people and which is causing the Congressional switchboard number (202-225-3121) to ring repeatedly is: The House of Representatives will stop doing a few unethical things (but not campaign finance reform) for a $30,000 salary hike. Shades of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.