Washington — The US Senate has learned a lesson from its colleagues in the lower chamber on how to get a pay raise: The best way is to vote for it outright. Last year the House did just that when it approved a 15 percent raise for itself, while keeping in place limits on outside earned income. Although some supporters prepared to duck the expected barrage of criticism, very little came.
Meanwhile, the Senate balked at the pay raise and chose instead to repeal its cap on outside earned income.
As a result, the United States now pays senators less than House members. Senators earn the old amount, $60,662 a year, while House members raised their pay from $60,662 to $69,800. In fact, senators now earn less money than some senior staffers on Capitol Hill and less than top-level civil servants.
But for well-known and powerful senators, the salary has been far from inhibiting, because they can earn thousands of dollars for speeches and articles.
The Senate strategy has backfired. For its pains to avoid voting itself a raise, the Senate has received a pelting from critics. Common Cause, a self-styled citizen's lobby, has kept the spotlight on senators, charging that income from special-interest groups damages their independence.
When the Senate released financial statements recently, press reports listed senators who doubled their salaries by honorariums. The disclosures showed that about half the Senate earned $20,000 or more from speeches and articles for outside groups.
Finally, a lone senator saw the opportunity to move against the honorarium explosion.
''I was just laying in the woods,'' says Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington, who last week won a surprise victory on his amendment to limit Senate honorariums to 30 percent of a member's salary.
Senator Jackson, who says he has given away every penny he has earned in speaking fees since he arrived in the Senate in 1953, has long opposed the concept of outside income.
''It's wrong because this is a full-time job and there's a fundamental conflict where people who are offering the honoraria are doing business with the government,'' he said after his legislative coup on Thursday.
Ideally, Congress would get a substantial pay increase, but members would be barred from any outside earnings other than dividends and interest income, says Jackson.
He calls the current level of pay ''an embarrassment,'' and points out that it is less than that of the chief garbage collector in Los Angeles. But he added that the Senate has a ''phobia'' against voting itself a pay increase.
Jackson explained after the vote last Thursday that he had been planning his assault for three months. His strategy was to force the Senate to vote on four different amendments, all proposed for a spending bill that has already passed the House.
The Senate rejected the first three overwhelmingly, because each included a pay raise. But on the fourth vote, Jackson pulled out the toughest proposal of all - an up-or-down vote on whether to limit honorariums.
With one-third of the Senate facing reelection next year, that amendment was hard to reject. ''This last vote goes to the heart of all the criticism,'' said Jackson.
He also said he expects to face 99 disgruntled colleagues. He clearly ruffled feathers on the Senate floor when he called for a raise that would ''not require members of this body to go out and hustle . . . to get honoraria in order to equal the pay in the House.''
Congress members have consistently argued that their salaries are too low. One explanation offered for backdoor methods of raising income is that Congress has refused to vote itself a raise for fear of voter backlash.
The Jackson amendment could still be changed. Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer said he was ''pleased'' by the victory, but he isn't resting easy. He noted previous limits on honorariums have been raised or repealed three times in the past decade.
Changing the amendment will not be easy. But one possible result of the Jackson proposal could be that the Senate will follow the House lead and vote itself a raise.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee has confirmed that some members are working on a plan to revise the Jackson amendment.