I never thought I would say this about someone who makes $89,500 a year, but congressmen should have a pay raise.
It's political suicide for them to say that. But someone should, especially because it could help abolish honoraria - the controversial practice of congressmen giving speeches for pay to groups interested in influencing their votes.Critics go so far as to say that is selling votes or access. Congressmen disagree, of course, saying a $1,000 speech fee could never buy their vote.
But it's time for Congress to pay itself an adequate salary, and stop taking outside pay from people trying to influence them.
So why isn't $89,500 adequate? Surely it would be a lavish, almost decadent salary in Utah. But it isn't in Washington, where ads show that housing costs are up to five times as high - really - and every-day living costs are 15 percent or more higher.
I didn't believe that until I moved here a little over a month ago myself.
I found, for example, that if my $29,000 home back in Rose Park were somehow magically transported to a comparable area here, it could well be worth $90,000 and would have several people fighting to buy it because of a tight market. But in Utah's flat real estate market, I couldn't sell the house and found few people even willing to look at it.
Roll Call, a private newspaper written mainly for members of Congress and their staffs, recently published a guide to neighborhoods to help newly elected members decide where to live.
Roll Call talked about relatively "cheap" housing on Capitol Hill, saying one-bedroom apartments "rent for $700 to $1,00 a month, condominiums sell for just $80,000 and up, and a three-bedroom house sells for at least $220,000."
In Georgetown, where people such as Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., live, "A three-bedroom house . . . starts at $400,000. A condominium in the area sells for no less than $200,000. A typical one-bedroom apartment rents for $950 a month."
Congressmen with children, pets or horses often move to somewhere such as McClean, Va., where townhouses - or what Utahns would call row houses - "begin selling at about $270,000, while property in the new subdivision named Millwood or in the Ballantrae Farms area averages well over $1 million."
Besides handling such housing costs, congressmen must at the same time maintain a residence back in Utah - as well as cars in both places. That makes the $89,500 salary start to seem smaller.
Maybe that's why Reps. Howard Nielson and Wayne Owens and Sen. Jake Garn keep only relatively small apartments in Washington. Rep. Jim Hansen owns a small condominium in Alexandria, Va. and Sen. Orrin Hatch owns a home in Vienna, Va.
Elected representatives face some other costs that are necessary to do their jobs.
For example, they are expected to entertain often. And they are often solicited for donations for a wide variety of charities and good causes - and not contributing may look bad, even if the congressmen's finances are tight.
So the answer for many congressmen is to accept honoraria, even if it may appear as a conflict of interest. Currently, House members are permitted to earn up to 30 percent of their salaries ($26,850) as outside income and senators may retain up to 40 percent ($35,800).
How much salary is enough? Word has it that a commission will recommend next month that Congressmen pay themselves $135,000 a year - but ban honoraria.
It is a good proposal. It allows congressmen to throw cold water on some of the heat they will take for voting for a pay raise by pointing out they also banned honoraria.
If the proposal fails, Congressmen will still look to honoraria to help make ends meet. That, or they will be forced to live way outside of Washington - next to some newspaper reporters I know - where costs are only twice what they should be, instead of four or five times like they are closer to the Capitol.