For most members of Congress, 1991 will be a very happy New Year financially.
As they report back to work, they'll receive a whopping pay raise that they approved back in 1989 as well as immensely increased future retirement benefits.Pay for members of the House increased to $125,100 from $96,600. But they may no longer keep outside speech fees, or "honorariums," from special-interest groups. Members can still accept them but must donate them to charity.
The change, though, may give new meaning to the term "free speech." It is also designed to help do away with the appearance that House members are also on the payroll of special interests and not just serving the public.
Meanwhile, a cost-of-living increase in the Senate raised pay to $101,900. With that salary, lower than in the House, Senators can still keep honorariums up to 27 percent of their pay - or roughly $27,500.
Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, annually keep near the limit allowed in honorariums. They defend the practice, saying it allows them to afford such things as keeping homes in both Utah and Washington without requiring large taxpayer-financed pay hikes.
In 1989, the pay in the House and Senate was $89,500 a year. That means in just over a year, the House gave itself a 39.8 percent pay increase. And the Senate gave itself 12.2 percent.
But because of campaign promises, the pay raises will affect Utah's House members differently.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, voted for the pay increase in 1989 but refused to pocket it until this year. He said members should stand for election before they can take a pay raise. He has given the extra money from pay hikes so far to Utah students as scholarships. He now will keep the entire amount.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, voted against the pay hike but kept the first cost-of-living part of it in 1990 anyway. But during the final weeks of his campaign for re-election, he vowed not to take a pay increase.
He clarified that to mean he will keep cost-of-living adjustments but will donate the larger portion of the pay hike to charity. He does not plan to specify for the press how much will go to what charities as proof of his donations.
About $13,225 of the total $35,600 raise since 1989 is considered by the House to be a cost-of-living adjustment.
Rep.-elect Bill Orton, D-Utah, will actually be taking a large pay cut. Disclosure forms show he has been earning about $250,000 a year as a tax lawyer. His House salary will be half of that. But Orton said that doesn't bother him and shows he didn't run for financial gain.
A hidden benefit of the new pay hikes is how it will also increase the retirement benefits of members.
A big loser, for example, is retiring Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah. That's because had he decided to serve another two years and received the new pay hike, it would have increased his retirement pension by a huge 57 percent.
Nielson now will earn an annual pension of roughly $18,375 a year for his eight years in Congress.
That is determined on a formula computing the average salary of his three highest-paid years times 2.5 percent times his years in office. Members can retire with full benefits at age 60 if they have 10 years of service, or at age 62 with at least five years of service.
Had Nielson stayed two more years with the pay increase to $125,100 a year, his annual retirement pension would have increased from $18,375 to $28,900.
If Hansen and Owens have been making full contributions to the House retirement fund, similar increases to their future pensions will also come.
For example, had Owens retired this year, his future pension would be $13,782. With another two years plus the higher pay level, it would increase 68 percent to $23,120.