By voting themselves a 15 percent pay hike effective July 1 (from $60,662 to articles, US senators have finally done what should have been done a year ago. Last year, it may be recalled, House lawmakers raised their salaries to the higher $69,800 level while restricting their income from lectures to 30 percent of their salary - or $21,000. The Senate, in what was viewed by many observers as a rather timid approach to the salary issue, retained the lower pay figure but at the same time lifted all restrictions on earned income.
The result: When senators recently filed their annual disclosure statements, the American public learned that as a collective entity senators earned a hefty , speaking engagements, and articles that must have been produced to ring up such earnings from activities that took place off the floor of - and beyond the main business of - the Senate itself.
That is the issue: namely, lawmakers, be they in the Senate or House, are sent to Washington by the American public to undertake the vital legislative duties of the nation. They are not sent there to join a speech-making circuit, although an occasional lecture or article may be appropriate to provide information, rally the public, address constituents, etc.
Who could fault senators for voting themselves the higher pay? Even with the pay hike, lawmakers still earn less than cabinet heads, federal appeals and district court judges, and top business executives. Indeed there was considerable merit in Senator Weicker's proposal that Senate pay be raised even higher, to $100,000 annually, providing that all outside earnings are ended. If Congress is to attract the most able persons possible, and avoid becoming a club for the well-to-do, it will have to provide more generous remuneration.
Under the pay plan passed by the Senate this week, the new restrictions on honorariums (limiting them to 30 percent of salary, as in the House) will not take effect until January 1984. That means that senators can continue to earn unlimited outside income for the rest of this year. That does show a bit of greed. It would have been more forthright to have begun honorarium limitation when the new salary schedule went into effect, as the House more courageously did last year.
Still, the pay hike, coupled with the limitation on outside earnings, represents an important step towards reaching a fairer legislative pay system. Senator Jackson, especially, deserves credit for bringing the whole issue before the Senate. The senator, who has been among the high outside-income earners, has contributed his honorariums charity over the years.
Lawmakers deserve a pay level equal to their high responsibilities. But that remuneration should come from the American people themselves, not indirectly from the public-lecture circuit.