The Senate voted this week to take its members off the payroll of special-interest groups - but only if a controversial campaign reform bill passes.
It voted to ban senators from keeping "honorariums," or fees for giving speeches. Special-interest groups may pay them up to $2,000 per speech. Actually, a speech is not necessary - with the money often paid if members simply go on factory tours or show up to shake hands.However, that ban is part of a campaign reform bill that has only slight chance of final passage because of competing interests among Democrats and Republicans, and the House and Senate. So the honorarium ban may never take effect. The Senate also took a similar vote last year on another bill that was never enacted.
Meanwhile, members have continued to pad their incomes with honorariums. In fact, financial disclosure forms that Utah's members filed last week show most of them earned at least a seventh of their total income from special-interest groups last year.
That was before the House banned honorariums beginning Jan. 1, 1990 (after giving itself a pay raise from $96,600 to $125,100 to compensate). And it was before the Senate voted Tuesday to maybe follow suit next Jan. 1 (without an additional pay raise from its current $101,900 salary level).
Disclosure forms show that Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, earned $42,500 in honorariums. He kept $27,300 and had $15,200 donated to charities. At least $9,500 of it came from finance groups interested in his job as ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.
Senate rules allowed members to keep honorariums amounting up to $27,337. The rest must go to charity.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, earned $69,900 in honorariums. He kept $23,135 and donated $46,765 to charity. At least $12,500 of it came from labor and management groups interested in his job as ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, earned $24,500 in honorariums, and kept it all. At least $14,000 of it came from defense contractors interested in his position on the House Armed Services Committee.
House rules allow members to have kept honorariums amounting up to 30 percent of their 1990 salary. While the House banned keeping honorariums after Jan. 1, it still allows members to donate them to charity - which can bring some tax breaks and the goodwill of charities.
Freshman Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, did not take office until this year, and received no honorariums last year.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, did not file his disclosure form by the deadline last week. For the fourth time in five years, he obtained an extension to file it later. But in 1989, he earned $12,000 in honorariums - half of it from companies controlled by his millionaire friend Ian Cumming.
Watchdog groups such as Common Cause have long claimed that special-interest groups may be buying votes with honorariums, and at least buy access to members of Congress. It contends Congress should pay itself a decent salary and ban honorariums to avoid the appearance of bribes.
Hatch and Garn - who through the years have shown they are honest people of high integrity - have been among the most adamant defenders of honorariums, and voted against the honorarium ban this week.
They say no senator would sell a vote for a $2,000 honorarium. They say honorariums help them raise the income they need to maintain homes in Washington and Utah without forcing a taxpayer-funded raise.
They say it also allows them to campaign for support of their positions. They say they give access to all groups - and pay is not necessary for it. And they add that all of their honorariums are listed each year for voters to decide if they were proper.
They also say groups that oppose their stands often pay to hear their views - which should be a sign that their votes are not influenced by honorariums. An example may be the $2,000 Hatch took last year from the Smokeless Tobacco Institute, even though he is a leading opponent of tobacco use.
Despite all those arguments, concern about honorariums will persist because, to paraphrase an old saying, if it walks like a bribe, smells like a bribe and brays like a bribe, it may be a bribe.
If the Senate wants to avoid the appearance of evil, it should also ban honorariums as the House did last year. And it should avoid lessening public trust even more through meaningless votes to attach supposed honorarium bans to bills that will never pass.