WASHINGTON — NEW statistics from Common Cause and a proposal from President Bush are combining to turn up the heat under Congress on the honorarium issue. Together they increase the possibility that Congress ultimately will do what the President asks - forbid senators and representatives from taking honorariums for speaking to interest groups. Honorariums, like campaign contributions, often provide interest groups with access to members of Congress that the average American lacks. But a more serious problem may be the appearance rather than substance of impropriety in the acceptance of these speaking fees, experts say.
In any case, Congress would not vote to ban honorariums unless that were part of a larger package that included a congressional pay raise, congressional experts say. The President has proposed increasing the pay of federal judges and many high executive branch officials by approximately 25 percent; if this is to have a realistic chance of congressional approval, a congressional salary boost would have to be included, House Speaker Thomas Foley said earlier this week. An honorarium ban could be expected to be part of any such broad package.
The new Common Cause figures show that 20 interest groups gave more than $50,000 in honorariums to members of Congress last year. The three most generous groups that provided over $100,000 include: the Tobacco Institute, which gave $123,400; the National Association of Broadcasters, which gave $113,500; and the American Bankers Association, which gave $106,550.
All this money is ``undermining the integrity and credibility of Congress,'' says Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer.
Other critics say the problem is with appearances, and that it is the appearance of integrity for sale that undermines confidence in Congress.
Members of Congress cannot be paid more than $2,000 per speech; few votes are changed in Congress as a result of such fees, says social scientist Suzanne Garment of the American Enterprise Institute. ``Members tend to go where they're already welcome; probably the major problem is appearances,'' she says.
It is ``questionable on its face'' for members of Congress to receive honorariums from business groups, says Deni Elliott, acting director of the Ethics Institute of Dartmouth College. She adds that when people attain positions of power in society, in or out of government, ``they give up something to play in that arena. And one of the somethings that they give up is the right to pursue individual interests in the way that other people might.'' One example: accepting honorariums.
Senators are permitted to keep only about $30,000 a year in honorariums, and representatives about $26,000; thus many members give to charity tens of thousands of dollars that they receive over that amount. By their donations, these members are in position to make a favorable impression on persons who support specific charities, some ethicists say.
If the support of churches, charities, and arts groups ``can be bought,'' Ms. Garment says, ``this kind of thing is not a bad way to do it. After all, if interest groups can buy congressmen, why can't congressmen buy interest groups?''