A presidential advisory commission Tuesday recommended a 50 percent pay increase for members of Congress and similar boosts for federal judges and other top government officials - but only if Congress stops its members from collecting speaking fees.
The panel, the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries, also recommended that the president's pay, which has been fixed at $200,000 since 1969, be raised by Congress to about $350,000.The commission chairman, Lloyd Cutler, noted that the government's top 3,000 or so workers are paid far less than professional athletes and cited a list of major league baseball salaries published in Tuesday's New York Times.
"More than 500 of them - down to the .200-hitting utility infielders - receive more than a district court judge or a member of Congress or a deputy secretary of state," Cutler said.
The pay raises are designed to restore purchasing power of top government workers to its level in 1969, the first year their pay was set under the commission's advice.
The congressional increase from $89,500 to $135,000 is also designed to wean members of Congress from taking honoraria for speeches to special interest groups and others.
One commission member, former Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., said the recommended pay level for lawmakers is "an ample, full-time salary, in return for which we expect Congress will outlaw all forms of honoraria conceivable to man."
Cabinet secretaries' pay would go from the current $99,500 to $155,000. U.S. District Court judges' pay would be the same as Congress', going from $89,500 to $135,000.
Cutler noted that federal judges "are leaving in droves" because they can make far more in private practice. The average top executive branch official leaves for the private sector after 18 months. And even members of Congress are deciding not to run for re-election because they can't afford to put their kids through college, he said.
While the pay of most American workers has slightly outpaced inflation over the last two decades, average top government salaries have eroded by 35 percent compared to inflation, he told reporters.
The recommendations attach dollar amounts to broad principles outlined in a draft report issued by the commission last week, in which the panel said salaries should generally restore top government officials' purchasing power to 1969 levels.
The self-styled citizens lobbying group Common Cause welcomed the recommended pay raises and in particular the recommended ban on speaking fees. The group's president, Fred Wertheimer, said it is important that Congress include in the ban other ways in which special interests can funnel money to lawmakers. Otherwise, he said, the problem will only surface in another form.
As congressional salaries have been held down by political forces, honoraria have grown, in effect making up the difference for lawmakers.