Study assails speech fees to lawmakers as influence buying. Common Cause says fees often go to key-committee members
Washington — Honoraria, the fees lawmakers receive for speeches, make political dollars and business sense. But the public-interest group Common Cause says such payments are unseemly and should be outlawed. A study conducted by Common Cause shows substantial honoraria payments to members of House and Senate committees from special-interest groups with legislative issues falling under the jurisdiction of those committees.
Honoraria fees to members of the House of Representatives totaled $9.8 million in 1987. Senators - many fewer in number - received $3.1 million.
Honoraria are unrelated to campaign contributions from political action committees and other donors. The payments are ostensibly similar to those paid to journalists and others who ply the lecture circuit. In the case of lawmakers, however, the potential for conflicts of interest is more evident.
``Our view is that honoraria are part of a system of obligation and influence that shapes public policy away from the broad public interest,'' says Jay Hedlund, director of grass-roots lobbying for Common Cause. ``It's an unhealthy relationship.''
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee received nearly half of their combined 1987 honoraria of $905,580 for appearances sponsored by three special interests - communications, energy, and health.
Senators sitting on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee received 26 percent of their total 1987 honoraria of $620,160 from financial interests. Half of the honoraria going to the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, totaling $610,292, came from financial interests.
One of the leading recipients of these committee-related speech fees was Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the House Health and Environment Subcommittee, who received a total of $42,500 from health-related interests, or 56 percent of his total 1987 honoraria of $76,400.
``Members of Congress simply cannot fully meet their public responsibilities when they are indebted to private interest groups who are paying them large honoraria fees,'' says Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause.
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina received $30,000 of his total $99,400 from communications and transportation sources, two of the interests under the committee's jurisdiction.
But Senator Hollings says that acceptance of such payments does not influence the way he carries out his Senate duties. ``Commerce is going to be interested in his opinion, it's only natural,'' says John Patterson, a spokesman for Hollings.
Top honoraria givers in the study were The American Trucking Association, which paid 21 senators and 62 representatives $117,500; the National Association of Broadcasters ($114,300); the Securities Industry Association ($110,000); and the Tobacco Institute ($102,000).
Paine Webber, the financial-services firm, gave $100,688 to House members. The Common Cause study singles out Republican congressmen Richard Cheney of Wyoming, the chairman of the House Republican conference, and Bill Gradison of Ohio, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, who between them received nearly 30 percent of this money.
Representative Gradison says, however, ``I have never been lobbied [by Paine Webber] on any legislative measure in all my 14 years in the Congress. They don't have a legislative program. Those are talks to their customers on things I'm in position to know about - taxes, health.''
Pete Williams, spokesman for Congressman Cheney, says the payments are for briefing business people on what's happening in Congress. ``Those folks don't lobby Congress. These are institutional information seminars.''
Lawmakers have a $2,000 ceiling per appearance, but no limit exists on the number of appearances. House members can keep outside income equal to 30 percent of their $89,500 annual salaries. Senators can keep payments equal to 40 percent. Lawmakers may dispose of excess receipts as they wish; many say they give the money to charity.
In defense of allowing some outside income to federal lawmakers, many members of Congress - and their spouses - point to the special financial requirements the work entails. ``To the average person in Idaho or Mississippi, $89,500 [a US representative's salary] is a lot of money,'' says George Mair, a spokesman for House Speaker Jim Wright. ``But [lawmakers] have to maintain two homes and travel during election years, when a lot of that travel is not paid for by the government,'' Mr. Mair adds.
Speaker Wright - who is the subject of an ethics investigation over royalties he received from a book publisher - has proposed that that the honoraria system be done away with and be replaced by a salary increase for federal lawmakers.