When a House member from New England was approached by a reporter last week and asked whether he had a moment to talk, his tart response spoke volumes about the mood on Capitol Hill: "Only if it's not about the pay raise."
Little wonder. The last time the lawmaker was quoted on the subject, the article was reprinted round the country and set off an avalanche of letters. "My hate mail has gone national," he said.As Feb. 8 approaches, the day congressional salaries are scheduled to rise 51 percent to $135,000 a year, congressional pay has become the flip side of the adage about the weather: Hardly anyone in Congress wants to talk about it.
That is particularly true in the House, whose 435 members are likely to bear the brunt of public resentment. Not only do they face re-election in 22 months (compared with only a third of the Senate), but also they will face the opprobrium of being accused of ducking a vote on the raise, which takes effect automatically unless both chambers reject it.
Under current strategy, the Senate will take an essentially no-risk vote. Senators are expected to vote against the raise. Meanwhile, House leaders are expected to prevent a disapproval resolution from coming to a vote in their chamber.
Though that back-door strategy has come under criticism - as it did two years ago when a similar ploy produced a $12,100 a year raise for lawmakers - pay-raise supporters say preventing a floor vote in the House is the only possible route because members of Congress won't vote to raise their own pay.
Key House members made that argument recently to Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, who was pushing for a vote on a measure scaling back the raise to 30 percent. They persuaded Wright that a vote on a 30 percent raise would have the same result as a vote on 50 percent: defeat.
Even without having to take a public stand on the issue, many House members are increasingly skittish about the political fallout even after the $45,500 raise goes into effect. Though it is supposed to be linked to immediate action on legislation put-ting strict new limits on outside income, particularly honoraria, many lawmakers fear that most voters will not make the connection.
Asked to assess the prevailing view in the House on the pay raise, one Northeastern Democrat said: "They know it's right, they want it, but it's a political issue on which you can't win. A lot of people feel it could be a big issue against them."
House leaders and other proponents of raising pay have been working to calm their colleagues' fears by reminding them that no member of Congress in recent memory has been defeated on the pay-raise issue. But, then again, no one has tested the political impact of a 51 percent increase. And many can envision the kind of commercials that faced Rep. Tom J. Tauke, R-Iowa., in last year's election.
Even though the fiscally conservative Tauke repeatedly has sought to require Congress to vote on its own raises and to postpone those increases to the next Congress, Tauke's opponent attacked him in a campaign ad on the 1987 raise by picturing pigs at a trough.
Public opposition to the raise is running strong in many congressional districts. "The volume (of mail) is not any heavier than on a lot of other controversial issues," one Texas Democrat said, "but the intensity of it is. People stop you on the street."
Despite the general nervousness, Tauke concedes that a large majority of his colleagues want the raise. "If you had a private vote, it would win 3 to 1," Tauke said. "If you had a public vote, it would lose 4 to 1."
One of the ironies of the issue is that support for the pay raise appears strongest among more senior members who seem to need it least, and opposition is strongest among younger members who seem to need it more because of the rising living costs.
Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, typifies the views of some senior members. Members of Congress "should have it, they need it," he said. "The younger members need it much more. They have to buy homes 30 to 40 miles from the Capitol because they can't afford to live closer."