WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday night to reject a 50% pay raise, but House leaders--bucking the tide of public opinion--promised to keep it alive by not scheduling a vote in that chamber until after the salary increase takes effect at 12:01 a.m. next Wednesday.
By a vote of 95 to 5, the Senate adopted a resolution offered by Sens. Larry Pressler (R-S. D.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that not only expresses opposition to the pay raise but calls on Congress to prohibit any future salary hike from taking effect without affirmative votes in both the House and Senate.
The five members who refused to join the opposition to the pay raise were Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii).
In addition, the Senate cast a voice vote favoring a companion measure that would prohibit members of Congress from accepting speaking fees or other honorariums in the future--but only if the pay increase takes effect Wednesday, as expected. House members currently may earn up to $26,850 in honorariums and Senate members are permitted to earn as much as $35,800.
Under current law, the 50% pay increase, which was proposed by a presidential commission and endorsed by both President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan, will take effect automatically Wednesday unless it is rejected by both chambers. It would raise the annual salaries of members of Congress to $135,000 from $89,500 and provide a similar hike for federal judges and top executive branch officials.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) announced a proposal to scale back the pay raise to 30%--coupled with a ban on honorariums. He said that it would be brought up for a vote in the House next Thursday. Wright's proposal is not expected to muster sufficient support to pass in either the House or Senate.
In fact, both the Senate and House votes are part of a carefully orchestrated plan designed by the congressional leadership to allow a majority of members to vote against the 50% pay increase while still reaping its rewards--much as they did two years ago when their pay was increased by $12,500.
A vocal group of critics condemned Wright's decision to delay the vote until Thursday as a parliamentary trick. "Nothing but camouflage," Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.) declared. "Gimmicky votes on the day after the fact only confuse the issue and give us political cover."
But Dodd indicated during an impassioned floor speech favoring the raise that Wright is only responding to the wishes of members who want the money without a vote. "In some quarters, particularly in private," he said, "the feeling has been vote 'no' and take the dough."
Even many members who have publicly expressed support for the 50% pay increase admit that they are skittish about voting for it because of the groundswell of public opposition that the proposal has stimulated. Most congressional offices have been deluged with letters opposing the proposal, and Grassley said that polls show that 85% of Americans are against it.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said that an overwhelming majority of American voters are opposed to the 50% pay increase not only because of its size but also because it is going to take effect without affirmative votes in the House and Senate.
"Whatever the practical arguments for the current system," he said, "it has heightened public mistrust of government."
Although Mitchell embraced Wright's proposal as a feasible alternative to the 50% pay raise, which he had endorsed last week, congressional sources said that the Senate certainly would reject a 30% increase combined with a ban on honorariums because that would effectively cut senators' incomes. Honorariums currently provide senators with up to 40% of their annual income.
Likewise, Wright acknowledged that his proposed 30% pay increase does not have sufficient support to pass the House. The 30% proposal is expected to be rejected by a coalition of members who oppose all pay increases and those who want the full 50% increase.
Speaker Tells Poll Results
The Speaker, who conducted a confidential poll of House members earlier this week, said he found that 61% of them would vote for a 30% increase next Thursday--not enough for the necessary two-thirds vote needed under House rules governing such a procedure. Moreover, he said, 54% of them think a $135,000-a-year salary would be "fair and proper" and 57% are opposed to voting on the proposal.
Wright said that his 30% proposal would scale back to $116,000 the annual salaries of top Administration officials as well as members of Congress. Seventy-five percent of those who responded to the Speaker's survey expressed support for the tradition of pay equity among the three branches of the government.