Though the public virtually had to yell at the top of its lungs before Congress paid attention, the lawmakers finally did the right thing Tuesday by rejecting a 50 percent pay raise.
But it would be a mistake for the 85 percent of Americans against the raise to conclude that the last word has been said on this subject. The decisive votes by which Congress rejected the raise Tuesday still leave plenty of unfinished business.For one thing, federal judges and top civil servants still deserve raises even if members of Congress don't. It's unfair to lump the raises all together in the same pay package.
The lawmakers already earn more than 99 percent of the people they serve. A big raise would put them even more out of touch with the public. Besides, there's no shortage of candidates for the House and Senate. But there are growing shortages of the most able replacements when vacancies arise on the federal bench and in the executive branch, particularly for senior scientists. These vacancies are often due to the much higher salaries that judges and scientists can command elsewhere. While lawmakers are sent to Washington to represent the public, judges and scientists are hired for their expertise. If Washington stops attracting top experts, the quality of government is bound to suffer.
Even so, part of the pay package for judges needs to be adjusted. There's no justification for senior judges to keep getting big raises after they have stopped hearing cases.
Like other Americans, lawmakers deserve to have their salaries protected against the steady erosion of inflation. But raises would be more palatable if Congress played catch-up in a series of stages rather than in one big bite.
Even more outrageous than the size of the increase was the cynical wheeling and dealing of Speaker Jim Wright in an effort to keep House members from having to stand up and be counted on the pay raise. He almost got away with it. Let's not go through this charade again. One sensible reform would be to eliminate the present requirement that pay raises go into effect unless Congress votes to reject them. Another big improvement would be a law that no congressional pay raise could go into effect until after the next election, giving voters a chance to say which lawmakers deserve it.
Just because the latest pay raise has been shot down, that's no excuse for Congress to forget about various reforms that were supposed to accompany it. There never was any justification for lawmakers accepting speaking fees and other payments from some of the special interests they are supposed to regulate. Let's also end the "grandfather clause" that enables House members elected before 1980 to accumulate large surpluses in campaign funds that can be converted to personal use upon retirement.
Moreover, a new look needs to be taken at the way members are appointed to the independent commission that recommends pay hikes for Congress. The present nine-member commission includes three members from companies that lobby Congress, three who used to be members of Congress, and the chairman is a partner in a Washington law firm that lobbies Congress. This makes the pay panel look anything but independent.