The U.S. Supreme Court let Congress off the hook this week by refusing to review the slippery process by which this nation's lawmakers can get pay raises without ever having to vote on them.

That's a shame because a reasonable case can be made that this law gives too much power to the President and an advisory pay panel. The law also makes it harder to hold Congress accountable.Just how hard can be seen from the sleight of hand the lawmakers executed last year when the House of Representatives deliberately voted just too late to stop a $12,900 pay hike. This subterfuge enabled the lawmakers to claim they really didn't want the raise while getting it anyway.

Equally deplorable is the way the pay-raise mechanism was put on the books in the first place - without the usual committee hearings, debate on the floor of Congress, or a recorded vote in either the House or Senate.

Under this mechanism, the Commission on Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Salaries recommends to the President the "appropriate" levels of pay for officials in the three branches of federal government. The President, who is not bound by the recommendations but has an incentive to be generous if he wants Congress to go along with his legislative agenda, then informs Congress of the pay levels he deems advisable. The President's recommendation automatically goes into effect 30 days after being sent to Congress unless Congress disapproves by a two-thirds majority in both houses - the same vote required to override a presidential veto.

The nation is about to be treated to another display of this setup in action. The pay commission is scheduled to hold a final public hearing Dec. 6 before recommending another round of raises by Dec. 15.

The panel is expected to recommend a large raise - hiking salaries from $89,500 a year to perhaps $135,000 or even $150,000 a year - if members of Congress give up the practice of accepting fees for speeches given away from Capitol Hill. The lawmakers agreed to abandon such fees once before in return for a raise, only to end up reneging on the agreement but keeping the raise.

Meanwhile, voters should take note of the fact that the new recommendations come just after the elections rather than just before. What a coincidence!