Peg the Pay Raise to Budget Progress

A CONGRESS that devises a Rube Goldberg process for granting its members a 50 percent pay hike without a vote is not a legislative body populated by many profiles in courage. The process goes something like this: Congress establishes a commission to recommend salary levels for Congress and other top federal officials. The commission submits its recommendations to the president, who in turn sends his version of the recommendations to Congress as part of his annual budget submission, a budget that is sure to be scrutinized and voted upon in every detail, except one. You guessed it, the pay raise. That goes into effect automatically unless both the House and the Senate vote against it within 30 days, which is about as likely as the PLO executive committee voting against a Palestinian homeland.

What Congress lacks in courage it makes up for in consistency. The identical process was used two years ago to win a $12,000 congressional pay raise. If you include that increase, members will have nearly doubled their salaries in just two years from $77,000 in 1987 to $135,000 in 1989 - assuming the full increase goes into effect this year.

It shouldn't. Regardless of what you think of the size of the pay raise, you should be concerned about the process they're using to ram it through. A studied avoidance of accountability has no place in our democratic system.

After working eight years on Capitol Hill, I understand the dilemma congressional pay poses for members of Congress. Although 99 percent of incumbents won reelection in November, the public holds Congress in pretty low esteem. It's hard enough going to your boss for a raise in the best of circumstances, but if you know your boss doesn't have much respect for you it's doubly difficult.

Members of Congress can't go on strike. They know the public would applaud a work stoppage on Capitol Hill. And a work slowdown would be redundant. Yet, I do believe members of Congress, many of whom must maintain a household back home and one in Washington, deserve a reasonable adjustment in salary. They are, as a rule, well-educated, dedicated professionals. They make momentous decisions affecting the fate of the world, and yet they are paid less than your average mid-level executive in a private corporation.

The question is: How to put into place a reasonable pay increase using a legitimate process that wins public confidence? One proposal was put forward by Christopher Matthews, Washington bureau chief of the San Francisco Examiner and former spokesman for House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Mr. Matthews suggests making the impending 50 percent pay increase contingent on Congress achieving a balanced budget.

It's an intriguing idea, but it needs refinement. As proposed, the suggestion doesn't stand a chance of being enacted, primarily because the budget doesn't stand a chance of being balanced anytime soon. Still, it's a simple yet revolutionary idea - pegging congressional pay to some objective measure of performance.

A balanced budget will probably be achieved in stages, over a period of four or five years. Therefore, I suggest phasing in the pay raise in installments coinciding with the current Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction statute, which calls for eliminating the deficit in incremental stages through 1993. For each year the Congress meets the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction target, they should be entitled to a portion of the proposed salary hike, say 20 percent.

Phasing in the pay raise over four or five years has a number of advantages.

It diminishes the public's understandable outrage over an abrupt 50 percent increase. Average income Americans earning under $20,000 a year find a one-shot $45,000 pay hike pretty hard to swallow. Going from $89,500 to $135,000 doesn't sound like easing hardship. It sounds like a money grab.

The phased approach will cost the Treasury less money each year, thereby helping with the deficit-reduction effort.

By phasing in the pay raise, members of Congress will have ample opportunity to make good on their promise that honoraria and other forms of outside income will be curtailed or abolished. They could simply lower the ceiling on outside income in step with the annualized pay increases.

The phased approach is in keeping with our principle of checks and balances. It gives the public a powerful check on the performance of Congress. Our democratic system - government of, by, and for the people - relies on the premise that decision-makers must be held accountable to the public. Congress does a disservice to the public by devising a Machiavellian scheme to avoid accountability on this sensitive issue.

Leadership requires the courage to take a risk in defense of principle. If Congress allows the full 50 percent raise to go into effect without a vote, the publishers of John Kennedy's book, ``Profiles in Courage,'' need not plan a sequel.

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