The Pay Cut Washington Needs

COMMENTARY

IN her new memoirs, Nancy Reagan provides an insight into one of the more contentious issues of the last year: the proposed congressional pay raise. The issue is about to surface again, as President Bush and congressional leaders try to work out a blame-sharing arrangement. Last time out, public pressure killed a proposed raise of 55 percent. Rarely has the cultural distance between the nation's capitol, on the one hand, and the nation on the other, been so starkly apparent.

The Washington establishment - conservative as well as liberal, press as well as politicians - couldn't understand why taxpayers would begrudge their poor beleaguered representatives a decent wage. Meanwhile, taxpayers making an average of $21,000 a year had trouble feeling sorry for politicians making $89,500, plus pensions and perks.

How could officeholders on the upper 5 percent of the income ladder feel deprived? With her sharp eye for social detail, Mrs. Reagan has provided an answer the political reporters missed. She is talking about Michael Deaver, the former presidential aide who left the White House to make his fortune and ended up in jail for cashing in too blatantly on his connections.

Deaver was ``frustrated by his relatively low salary,'' Mrs. Reagan writes, ``in a town where people he was meeting were earning several times as much in the private sector.''

The problem in Washington these days is not that members of Congress and other officials are paid too little (though they deserve periodic raises just like everyone else). The problem is that the rest of Washington makes far too much.

Many have lamented the way corporate political-action committees (PACs) have corrupted the political process. But the invasion of high-paid lobbyists has had another, more insidious effect. It has made Washington a very, very expensive place. Average household income is 42 percent above the nation as a whole.

About every tony store in the United States has opened branches in the D.C. area in recent years. ``This has got to be the most affluent clientele we see anywhere,'' Michael R. Lavington, president of Kay Jewelers, told the Washington Post.

It's not politicians and bureaucrats who are doing the serious shopping. It's the burgeoning galaxy of string-pullers. Charles DiBono, head of the American Petroleum Institute, makes more than $330,000. Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association gets twice that - enough to pay the congressional delegations from 22 different states.

Washington lawyers do even better. Partners at Skadden, Arps, a major law firm, pulled in $885,000 apiece last year. That's nothing, though, compared to the larger business world, where members of Congress have to go for money. The two top executives at Walt Disney Productions made a combined $72 million last year, enough to pay the salaries of every member of Congress and still have $15 million left over.

(If you are wondering why the press hasn't brought this aspect of the pay-raise issue to your attention, then you haven't checked the salaries of Washington reporters lately. Of Washingtonian Magazine's list of the 50 most influential Washington reporters, two-thirds make $200,000 or more.)

The worst part is, we taxpayers pay for this bloated private-influence sector. We're the people who buy the groceries and gas, pay lawyers and realtors, and thus support the vast lobbying empires of such groups, whether we agree with them or not.

Call it the Lobbyists Maintenance Tax. It's built right in to the prices we pay. At least we can vote against members of Congress we don't agree with. The Lobbyist Tax, by contrast, gives us no say in the matter at all.

What the nation needs right now is not a big raise in government pay, but a big cut in the Lobbyist Tax. There's an old-fashioned, free market solution: political content labeling. Under present law, manufacturers must list the material ingredients of their products so that customers know what they are ingesting.

Political content labeling, listing PAC contributions and the like, would inform customers what their purchases put into the body politic. The result would be some restraint on Washington's influence sector that is totally lacking at the present time.

Then, maybe $89,500 plus fringes wouldn't look so bad.

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