Speaker Jim Wright, under pressure to schedule House action on a proposed congressional pay raise, says that any attempt by him to block the increase would "violate the spirit" of the law that created the pay-raise process.
The Texas Democrat's most detailed explanation to date of his position on the matter came in a Jan. 13 response to a Fort Worth resident who complained about the raise.In the letter, Wright said he cannot tamper with the pay-raise process.
With time running out on efforts to stop the 50 percent raise, its critics have singled out the Fort Worth congressman as their primary adversary.
The increase, which would boost base congressional pay to $135,000 a year, will take effect automatically unless both the House and Senate reject it by midnight Feb. 7.
Wright also seemed to shift responsibility for the raise to former President Reagan, who recommended the increase in his federal budget for fiscal year 1990.
"As speaker of the House, I have made no move to try to influence the president's decision," Wright wrote to Joseph Karol of Fort Worth. "For me to do so would violate the spirit of the 1967 law whose very purpose was to take the decision out of our hands."
The speaker's reply to Karol's complaints is his most detailed explanation to date of his position on the pay raise. Wright, who issued a brief statement on the subject Jan. 6, did not respond to interview requests submitted to his office Tuesday and Wednesday.
Nearly a quarter of the senators sponsored legislation Wednesday that would reject the pay raise or roll it back if the House lets it become law.
The 1967 law cited in Wright's letter was designed to remove Congress from the pay-raise process by establishing a presidential advisory commission on government pay scales. The Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries makes its pay recommendations to the president, who is free to ignore the advice, to amend it or to incorporate the higher salaries in his budget.
Congress amended the law in 1985 to stipulate that any pay raise proposed by the president takes effect automatically unless Congress rejects it within 30 days - a procedure critics have called "say no and take the dough."
Reagan officially proposed this year's $45,500-a-year raise Jan. 9. If the pay raise goes into effect, Wright, whose leadership position makes him the highest-paid member of Congress, would see his salary increase from $115,000 to $175,000 a year.
"You probably feel, as I do, that Congress ought not to be in the position of having to decide its own salary," Wright wrote. "It seems far more proper that this decision should be made by some knowledgeable, independent, outside agency.
"The president has the power to raise, lower or accept the commission's recommendations, or to do nothing at all. Mr. Reagan ultimately decided to accept the commission's recommendations, and these will become effective in the absence of action to the contrary by both House and Senate."
Although Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine has promised a vote in his chamber, Wright said in a statement Jan. 6 that the House will follow "regular procedure" on the salary increase. Other Democratic leaders acknowledge that "regular procedure" means legislation blocking the raise will languish in committee until after the Feb. 7 deadline.
"I think all of us that have been around this town any length of time are fully aware that there will not be a vote in the House of Representatives. The pay raise will take effect," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
House pay-raise opponents scheduled a news conference Thursday to urge a vote.
"I cannot see them making a charade of the political system by getting something by not voting on it. That annoys me," Karol said Wednesday. "It's sleazy and it's underhanded."
Meanwhile, the National Taxpayers Union, a non-profit group organizing opposition to the pay raise, unveiled a new protest song titled "Tea Bag Revolution." It was recorded by Keith Wood, Rich Boehms and Mike Grass of the Detroit area and comes from efforts of 30 radio talk show hosts, who are behind a drive to send tea bags to lawmakers with the message: "Read my tea bag. No 50 percent raise for Congress." The chorus goes:
"There's no more money, we're angry as can be.
"So we've joined the Tea Bag Revolution.
And one of the verses says:
"We've come to be that money tree.
"They pick from more and more.
"Now I think it's time, the people remind them, who they're working for."