A SEARCH for better government: That's the fundamental issue that lies behind the current effort in Congress to raise pay for many top members of government, including members of Congress, and to phase out the system whereby special interest groups pay members honorariums. Yet experts say that if Congress and the White House are to succeed in raising the quality of top members of government, they must do more to make working for government a worthwhile experience and to require higher ethical standards.
On Saturday the Senate rejected pleas of leaders in both parties and voted themselves a smaller pay increase than the one the House had approved Friday. Senators would get a 10 percent raise in 1990 - to $98,400 a year, while the House members voted themselves a raise of 7.9 percent in 1990 and 25 percent more in 1991, bringing their annual salaries to about $125,000. Federal judges and other top-level government employees would also get a substantial pay raise.
The bill would prohibit members of the House of Representatives from accepting any honorariums after January 1991, and begin what congressional leaders hope is a phase-out of Senate acceptance of honorariums.
The pay-ethics package, expected soon to be signed into law by President Bush, is primarily an ``ethics package,'' say House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington and other House leaders.
But others say the real issue is compensation.
Most experts agree the salaries of top government officials lag behind those of private industry, producing what former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci calls ``a disincentive'' for Americans to serve in top federal positions.
In salary ``the executive branch, generally, is about 40 percent behind the economy,'' says former Sen. Charles Mathias, a member of the presidentially appointed Volcker Commission, which supports a raise.
``The public welfare is being jeopardized'' by the inability of government to attract top-quality technical talent, he adds, especially in scientific specialties.
But there's more to the problem and it remains to be solved: ``In candor, it isn't all salary,'' Mr. Carlucci says. He cites strict divestiture requirements for nominees, the complexity of financial forms nominees must fill out, overly restrictive ethics laws, and the other frustrations government officials face daily.
Also in need of action are the salary problems of the second- and third-level career civil servants, he adds. At about age 35, these officials often conclude that the combination of job frustrations and the financial problems that they likely will face when their children enter college sours them on government service ``and they get out,'' he says.
The House vote to end honorariums comes as Americans ``sense that there are abuses and that they ought to be corrected,'' says Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center.
America has had years of relative peace and prosperity with no dominant national issues, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. At such times scandal stories can dominate the media, he says, and recently they have: Congress has reacted by moving against honorariums.
The honorarium system ``has really gotten out of hand,'' Mr. Mathias told reporters recently: ``Now you get paid not for a speech but for an appearance.''
But ending honorariums inevitably is twinned with a pay raise to cancel out what otherwise would be an income loss for House members, Mr. Ornstein says.
Ending honorariums will make members of Congress more accountable to the public, experts say, by reducing the leverage of special interests. ``The question is,'' Carlucci asks, ``who is going to pay them? Is it going to be the public? Or is it going to be the special interests?''
Some reformers and ethicists say changes are also needed in the way political campaigns are funded. ``Campaign finance reform is absolutely critical,'' says Edwin Delattre, Bradley Fellow in Applied Ethics at the American Enterprise Institute.
Public opinion on the pay raise issue is ``notably intense,'' Mr. Ladd says. ``The idea of saying to the average family, `How could you live on $90,000?' seems profoundly offensive.''
``Members of Congress are well aware that they are going to be battered by this'' raise in the 1990 election, says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar. But the bulk of the raise for House members comes after that election: ``It's a completely respectable and fair-minded way of doing this,'' Mr. Mann says.