WASHINGTON - Well, who said a few million upset voters couldn't influence Congress.

I did, unfortunately.I was among those who were sure that the proposed 51-percent pay hike for Congress would become law last week. After all, despite extremely heavy public opposition, a poll by House Speaker Jim Wright showed that most House members still wanted the raise - and Wright had vowed not to allow a vote on it before it automatically took effect Feb. 8.

But a little fancy maneuvering by conservative Republicans coupled with a case of frantic fear of voters turned that all around in a way that could only happen in Congress. Other elected officials learned how to avoid such fiascos long ago.

It started on the Monday two days before the raise was supposed to take effect. Not much was supposed to happen that day on the floor of the House, and many members hadn't even bothered to return to Washington from their districts.

But opponents of the raise had warned their friends to be there en masse to try a long-shot plan to force a pay-raise vote. Among those in on plotting the insurrection were Reps. Jim Hansen and Howard Nielson, both R-Utah. Nielson even left his own health conference in Utah to come help with the rebellion.

The fun started when Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, R-Calif., made a priority motion that the House immediately vote on the pay raise.

Under parliamentary procedure, that motion took precedence over any other business. The only way to defeat it - which Democratic leaders tried - is to call for a motion to adjourn.

But the pay raise opponents quickly made speeches that any vote to adjourn would be considered by voters to be the same as a vote for the pay raise. In other words, conservatives had found a way to have an informal vote on the pay raise.

One Democratic congressional aide said, "The Republicans had been warned to be there in force. The Democrats who happened to be there absolutely freaked out when they realized what was happening. They panicked."

So the House Democratic leadership could not come close to rounding up a majority of votes to adjourn. That forced House Speaker Jim Wright to schedule a vote on the raise the next day, when it went down to a 380-48 defeat.

Even though 54 percent of the House members had told Wright in a confidential poll that they favored the raise, only 11 percent dared vote for it publicly. That shows how clumsy - and not totally honest - Congress is in handling raises for itself.

Surely, the public almost never supports a raise for Congress, even when it is justified. If public opinion always prevailed, Congress would still likely be paid the $6 a day its members received back in 1789.

But Congress should borrow hints from county commissions and city councils in how they handle their raises with much less controversy.

First, they usually give themselves the same cost-of-living raise that they give other public employees. People could relate to congressmen receiving the same type of raise that someone on Social Security would receive.

Congress for years - again apparently because of fear of voters - did not take cost of living raises. That, in my opinion, has resulted in congressional salaries that are realistically too low unless supplemented by outside income such as accepting ethically questionable fees for giving speeches to special interest groups.

Councils and commissions always try to sell the public on the need for the raise by showing how long it has been since their last raise, and what comparable officials are paid elsewhere.

Then they always vote on the raise, and don't try a back-door approach as did Congress - which may have offended more people than the raise itself. The commissions and councils also usually delay large raises until after the next election.

The raises are never popular, but they are accomplished with little political damage. It's time Congress looked to similar honest and straightforward means to take care of its own raises.