I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel sorry for those poor congressmen who failed so miserably in their efforts to slip across a 51 percent pay raise without actually having to admit publicly that they thought it was the swellest idea since deficit financing.
And in the great Capitol Hill tradition that for every economic problem there must be a solution in the federal treasury, I intend to go beyond mere murmurs of civic sympathy to a concrete legislative proposal. After all, I think it's only fair that we try earnestly to do for them what they are always so eager to do to us.First, though, let's stop for a moment of pity, mixed with irony. The irony, of course, is that the United States Congress in recent years has been a principal exponent of what we might call "the politics of envy" - in contrast, say, to "the economics of growth."
In every tax bill since 1982, Congress has taken vitriolic aim at anyone who had the temerity to make more than its members did. It has scaled back the pension plans of dentists and corporate executives, even though such plans augmented the nation's embarrassingly low savings rate. It wrote vindictive ex-post-facto law on tax shelters. It itched even to take on private health plans, presumably in the belief that the folks who brought us Medicare could do better.
Never mind that congressmen's own salaries were supplemented quite beautifully with everything from ultra-lavish pension plans to taxpayer-sponsored health clubs to Senate bean soup. If you're a "public servant," the least the public can do is serve you, isn't it?
But time did march on, to be sure, and inflation came from . . . who knows where? Certainly not from Congress' own nonstop spending, could it? Of course not; all that inflation must have come from somewhere else. Libya, maybe.
In any event, inflation keeps on arriving, and even at the current "modest" 4.5 percent, prices will double every 16 years - so what's a poor congressman to do if he wants to maintain the two-home standard of living to which he, his wife and his campaign manager are convinced he is entitled?
Here's where I am prepared, out of patriotic compassion, to come to the rescue of these deserving legislators. I am prepared to ignore such distracting trivialities as the report that more than two thirds of new House members are already getting an increase from what they earned in the private sector. I want them to have what every decent citizen since Oliver Twist has felt was his entitlement: "More!"
But there's only one slight caveat: this time, I want them to earn it.
Let us propose, not some piddling 51-percent increase - what self-respecting politician can be expected to live on that? - but a more satisfying 100-percent raise. And let us say openly that it will go into effect in precisely four years. The only proviso is that the raise will be held in abeyance unless, on that date, the federal budget has been balanced without increasing taxes.
Taxes, plainly, are not the problem. Federal taxes last year grabbed 19.4 percent of national income, precisely the same portion as in 1980. The exploding deficit has been entirely the creation of unchecked federal spending. Check it, fellows, and you shall have your reward.
The delayed, but higher pay raise has two other virtues. If it is not claimable by Congress in 1993, the offer will be renewed annually, so that the incentive will be continuous. And there is one other small advantage that may cause less excitement on the Hill: with the higher pay, announced in advance, we might indeed get better congressmen.
Short of earning what would then at last be a merit pay increase, members of Congress would have to live with the present system. If this then induced them to return to private life, reviving after long neglect the tradition of one-term public servants giving brief unselfish service to their government, that might not be the worst result, either. But I'd rather double their pay, in return only for their doing what both parties have been promising to do for a generation.
What could be more fair than that?