Private perks for public people

MISPLACED congressional political sensitivities and a resurgence of old-fashioned greed are combining to threaten a resurgence of old-fashioned corruption on Capitol Hill. The misplaced sensitivities have to do with the salary of a member of Congress. That is now $75,000 a year, a figure widely perceived as inadequate by those who receive it. Congress cannot bring itself to raise the salary because of another widely held perception that such action would be politically dangerous, if not suicidal.

Rather than test the validity of that belief by actually doing it and observing what happens, Congress resorts to various subterfuges. Members are eager for the honorariums generated by speeches, articles, and personal appearances. There are limits on the total amounts of honorariums; members of the House can receive no more than 30 percent of their salaries, members of the Senate no more than 40 percent. (The speeches and articles that generate these honorariums are usually written by staff members on the public payroll.) But there are no limits on where the honorariums come from or on the accompanying travel and expenses -- for example, several days in the Caribbean in February for a member and his wife for a speech that takes perhaps an hour to deliver.

A coal company paid a number of congressmen $1,000 each -- and provided transportation -- to go look at its coal mine. The excuse was that the congressmen dealt with mining legislation, and the trip provided valuable background. It is in the public interest that these congressmen should know about coal mines -- so much so that the public, through the House of Representatives, would have paid for it. So why did not the members take a commercial flight, economy class, and get reimbursed for the cost?

Rep. Dan Daniel (D) of Virginia, a member of the Armed Services Committee, accepted somewhere between 68 and 200 free flights (those concerned lost count) from the Beech Aircraft Corporation. When questions were raised about the propriety of this, Mr. Daniel thought he made it right by reimbursing Beech for the commercial airline fare. Could he really have thought that came close to the actual cost of operating the planes he used? All of this was going on while Daniel was pushing an amendment to direct the Pentagon to buy 24 Beech planes which the Pentagon was not sure it needed.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, Mrs. Helms, and three staff members traveled to Chile as guests of the Chilean National Agricultural Society, whose members share the general political orientation of the 18th-century French landed aristocracy. (It was on this trip that Senator Helms made his well-publicized pronouncements on the virtues of the Chilean government of President Pinochet.) Helms is not only chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee (a circumstance that provided the ostensible reason for the trip); he is also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Latin America. In this position, he should travel to Latin America more than he does. The Foreign Relations Committee should, and would, pay for it (but not for Mrs. Helms).

This type of behavior is rubbing off on congressional staffs. M. Danny Wall, staff director of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, made 30 trips around the United States last year, most of them paid for by bankers and other financial institutions. Mr. Wall says this is legitimate fact-finding, made all the more important because the House Banking Committee will not let its staff do the same thing. It is a good idea that congressional staff concerned with banking should attend banking meetings, but Congress ought to pay for it and not look the other way while banks pay.

There are occasions when it is difficult to accomplish a legitimate mission without accepting favors. This writer once allowed the government of the People's Republic of China to pay his expenses during 16 days in China. But this was when China was less open than it is now, and there was no other way to go. Candor also requires the disclosure that I once spent a pleasant weekend on Cape Cod at a convention of the Rubber Footwear Manufacturers Association, something that in retrospect I probably should not have done.

But it is hard to find legitimate reasons for members of Congress and their staffs to go after trips, honorariums, and other perquisites to the extent that recent disclosures indicate. The reason, given in private, is that Congress cannot raise its own salaries and those of its staff (currently at a top of $72,000).

Members of Congress probably ought to be paid more than they are -- maybe $100,000. Most of them work hard at a tough job. But $75,000 a year will support a comfortable life style. And congressional behavior is increasing instead of reducing public cynicism about congressional pay. This behavior also makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that growing numbers of congressmen and their staffs are in the job for what they can get out of it, not for what they can put into it.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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