A funny thing seems to have happened to the controversial 50 percent pay raise for Congress on its way to the rubber stamp. But laughter would be inappropriate. It's also too soon to start cheering even though some aspects of the latest development look encouraging.
Until this week, the fix was in. The Senate was going to vote on and reject the pay raises recommended last year by a special commission and endorsed by President Reagan. Then House of Representatives would vote, too - but not until after Feb. 8, when the raises automatically take effect unless rejected by both chambers.But then the public started objecting strongly to both the raise itself and to the sneaky way that Congress would get it. So strong, in fact, were those objections that House Speaker Jim Wright has switched signals.
When the House votes next week, it will be on a raise of 30 percent, not 50 percent. The vote is still scheduled to take place after the Feb. 8 deadline. This ploy would reduce the raise for lawmakers and officials of the executive branch of government but not for judges, whose salary cannot be reduced under the Constitution.
The lower raise would give the lawmakers an increase more in line with the inflation that has taken place since their previous pay hike. But Wright's plan could make it harder to get Congress to curtail the fees its members receive for speeches and other outside work. Because House members currently can retain up to 30 percent of salary in honoraria, those receiving the maximum would get no more money if they went along with a 30 percent pay hike but also eliminated honoraria.
But many House members do not want a recorded vote on any form of a pay raise. The upshot of Wright's ploy could be a more modest raise that placates some voters. Or the outcome could easily be a big pay raise that still antagonizes many taxpayers but without the promised reforms on honoraria.
Where does all this leave the country? Basically, with a strong conviction that Congress still needs to overhaul the way it approves pay raises for itself and others.
Ideally, all the lawmakers should stand up and be counted on their own raises. Then those raises should not take effect until after the next congressional election so the public can decide which lawmakers deserve the extra money and which don't. Moreover, Congress should stop piggybacking on raises for other officials; instead of combining raises for lawmakers, judges, and executive branch officials into a single pay package, such increases should be separated into two or three different bills.
Moreover, honoraria should not be just limited but eliminated. They present too great an opportunity for vote-buying by special interests. The men and women who make this nation's laws should avoid not only conflict of interest itself but even the appearance of wrong-doing.