MOST Americans are inclined to say no to a pay raise for members of Congress. The lawmakers' present $89,500 a year seems lordly enough. Most people would be delighted with half that. Most people, however, don't have to make decisions on trillion-dollar budgets, nuclear arms reduction treaties, the nation's welfare system, et al. The presidential commission on salaries had such responsibilities in mind when it recommended 50 percent raises for representatives and senators, judges, and other federal officials.
Top salaries in Washington have lagged behind inflation for years; they've fallen 35 percent in buying power over the past two decades. Salaries of federal judges and administrators should be high enough to reasonably compensate talented, public-spirited people who can earn many times more elsewhere.
True, a desire to serve, not big salaries, should draw people to important government posts. But salaries should not be an obstacle, either. The commission's recommendations represent a commendable effort to bring government pay at least into line with salaries in the private, non-profit sector.
Raises for members of Congress, of course, generate a different set of responses than those for judges or administrators. Voters are wary of raises for their representatives. The American egalitarian impulse favors relatively low-paid citizen legislators. The facts, of course, defy that bit of political romance. Many members of Congress are well heeled, and all face substantial expenses, such as maintaining two homes.
The best argument for congressional raises, however, is their link to a ban on honorariums, which bring lawmakers sizable bonuses on top of regular salaries. The honorariums also bring the odor of corruption, since the people paying for meals and tossing in $1,000 or so for a few perfunctory words from the congressman are the same folks who will be asking for legislative favors later. If the raises result in Congress's voting a tough ban on honorariums, as promised, they will be a sound investment in better government.
The salary commission's recommendations may yet be changed by President Reagan. What Mr. Reagan approves will then become part of his budget message to Congress in January. The new salaries will take effect automatically unless Congress votes them down within 30 days. So the legislators can get their raises without having to vote on them.
Some see this as a dereliction of duty. In this view, the Constitution's requirement that congressional salaries be ``ascertained by law'' means taking a direct vote on them. Others see the current procedure as being authorized by law and therefore within the meaning of the Constitution. Practically speaking, there is value in having Congress insulated from voting on federal salaries, since history shows that the political impulse is always to say no.
The commission's findings, on the other hand, make it clear that it's time to say yes.