If Congress decides to ban honorariums as part of a trade-off for a proposed 50 percent pay increase, it may leave several loopholes - which some Utah congressmen favor.
Honorariums are the fees members receive for talking to interest groups. Those drafting an honorarium "ban" have been quoted this week saying they still may allow such fees to be collected if donated to charity. They also still may allow groups to pay travel expenses of visiting congressmen.Utah's two Republican senators, Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, say they favor such loopholes - and defend honorariums in general.
Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, prefer an outright ban on honorariums if the raise takes effect. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, did not respond to inquiries about honorariums.
All five, however, have said they oppose the proposed pay increase from $89,500 to $135,000 that will take effect unless both houses vote by Feb. 8 to reject it. The House is not expected to vote but likely will "ban" honorariums to help quell controversy about the raise.
House members may now keep $26,850 in honorariums per year. Senators may keep $35,800. They may earn more but must donate it to charity.
Hatch and Garn said some of the loopholes being discussed - and honorariums in general - have some merit.
"I actually prefer keeping honoraria to getting a pay raise," Hatch said. "That's because honoraria is all private money and doesn't cost the taxpayer anything. And we have to disclose exactly how much we receive, from whom and where. That allows voters to decide whether we have acted properly."
Hatch said giving speeches is a necessary part of the job. For example, he said labor-law reforms he pushed never would have become law if he hadn't traveled the nation extensively to campaign for them. They eventually passed by one vote.
Hatch said earning extra honorariums also is a nice way to help charities back home, which often request donations he may not be able to afford otherwise. He also said groups, such as Common Cause, that say honorariums are an unethical way to buy influence with congressmen are wrong. "It's pure bunk. There's no way anyone is going to buy a U.S. senator for a $2,000 speech fee," the highest fee allowed per speech.
Garn said that if the pay raise passes, rules might should require that all honorariums money be paid directly to charities - not to congressmen who could hold it for almost a year and draw interest on it before they donate it.
Utah's House delegation is not as defensive of honorariums and travel expenses for speeches.
"Especially if the pay increase passes, we will be making a nice wage and should be able to afford to pay our own way to speeches," Nielson said.
Owens said he also tentatively favors an outright ban on honorariums but said he hasn't had a chance to think through some of the loopholes now being mentioned.
He said he also would like Congress to look at some other questionable practices - such as allowing House members elected before 1980 to keep any unused campaign funds when they retire - which may amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"One member told me he could be earning more elsewhere, and that he was using campaign funds as sort of a secondary retirement fund and that he deserved it. I think we're getting pretty brazen around here doing things like that and getting 50 percent pay increases," he said.