Even with a starting salary of $89,500, members of Congress can't always make ends meet. Many have to supplement their income by giving talks, writing books and even playing poker.
Allegations that House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, violated House ethics rules by using his office for personal financial gain have brought national attention to these outside sources of income.The most controversial, as well as most popular, source of revenue for lawmakers is the honoraria they get for speeches, appearances and, sometimes, just for sitting behind a plate of eggs at a breakfast hosted by a lobbyist.
Such sessions can net $2,000 for an hour's eating.
"We are supposed to be the only human beings who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers and not be affected by it," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., mused of speaking fees from special interest groups.
But Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who collected $250,000 for making 51 speeches last year, has been quoted as saying: "If you can't take their money and go to their dinners without looking them in the eye and saying no to whatever they ask, you ought not to be in this business."
Book writers, like Wright, earn not only extra income, but income that is free of congressional curbs. Outside income - including speaking or appearance honoraria, but not book royalties - is limited to 30 percent of congressional salary.
Anything extra, as in Rostenkowski's case, must be donated to charity.
House members last year disclosed earnings from selling stock, hay and old coins, and at least in one case from playing a skillful hand of poker. The poker player, Buddy Roemer, went on to win the governorship of Louisiana last year.
Some are less fortunate and save what they can on living expenses in high-rent Washington. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, made headlines when it was disclosed that he sleeps on a sofa in his office. But aide Ed Gillespie said that three other congressmen now do likewise.
Armey is not one to turn down speakers' fees, earning $14,000 from them last year.
"Congress is a full-time job and, basically, the only way to earn more money, aside from being a partner in a law firm, is through honoraria, which is a common practice here," Gillespie said.
Wright, who disclosed total 1987 income of at least $168,311, earned $45,850 from honoraria from such lobbying groups as the American Public Transit Association, the American Hospital Association, the National Association of Realtors and the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation.
He donated $13,000 to charity, which brought him below the limit on speaking fees.
Not everyone is enamored with the practice, however.
"It is a legal way of lining politicians' pockets," said Philip Stern, 62, muckraking author of "The Best Congress Money Can Buy."
"When the chairman of the Agriculture Committee takes $14,000 in honoraria from sugar and milk producers, when the members of the banking committee get thousands from banks, those are inherent conflicts of interest," Stern said.
Stern said even he was shocked by The Dallas Morning News disclosure that seven Armed Services Committee members were given $2,000 apiece by the Oshkosh Truck Corp. to attend a breakfast just hours before they were to vote on whether to make the Army buy 500 more of its vehicles.
"I've never thought it could get this raw," he said.
Ron Paul, the former congressman and now the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, said he was quite disturbed about getting cash just to show up for breakfast when he first came to Washington in 1974. He thought he was being paid $1,000 to speak.
"I was naive enough to think someone was interested in my views," Paul recalled in a telephone interview. "I was never more outraged and personally insulted, and I told them where to get off. If members of the executive or judiciary branches engaged in these practices, they would be subject to criminal prosecution and jail," he said.
Stern said that one transportation lobbying group will pay any House member $1,000 - $2,000 for a senator - just to drop by and shoot the breeze with staff members.
"We sometimes pall at lawyers making $500 an hour - Jesus, public officials pocketing $1,000 or $2,000 an hour . . ."
But are the lobbyists getting value for their money?
Michael Robinson, 42, associate professor of government at Georgetown University inWashington, thinks not. Then why do they do it?
"It's like nuclear strategy for the superpowers," he said in a telephone interview. "There is the fear that if you don't give and somebody else does give, they'll get greater access. It's generally a defensive strategy."