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A Most Unethical Way to Deal With Ethics : Pay Hike: If lawmakers really do need more money, why do most of them seek reelection?

November 19, 1989|Joel Fox | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

Less than a year after a public outcry forced it to retreat from a 51% pay boost, Congress gave itself a salary increase of nearly 40% last week. In the legislation providing for the raise, Congress says it would also clean up its ethics. The representatives, in other words, are saying it will take more money to do the right thing--not accepting speaking fees from special-interest groups and limiting outside income and the value of gifts. Presumably, if the pay increase doesn't go through, Congress will not do the right thing.

Congress always faces an uphill battle when seeking a pay increase. As an institution of power, it has a longstanding image problem among Americans. Mark Twain captured this public attitude when he said, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

California voters should pay special attention to the debate on congressional salaries and ethics reforms and how their representatives voted. For they will have to decide these issues for themselves next June.

On the ballot will be a measure, placed there by the Legislature, putting forth various ethics reforms, among them a ban on honorariums. Although the measure does not set up a salary schedule, it does create the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which would be mandated to establish and annually adjust pay and other benefits for statewide office-holders and the legislators. The commission would be composed of seven members appointed by the governor for six-year terms.

Unlike Congress, this unelected commission would be immune to public sentiment. Observers of California politics agree that it will significantly boost the salaries of our state officials. If you doubt that, why do you think the legislators voted to establish the commission in the first place?

Ethics reforms are laudable and should be put into effect. But they should be separated from pay raises, which should be considered on their own merits. What is frequently overlooked in arguments about pay increases for politicians is that they tacitly acknowledge that our lawmakers constitute a professional class.

One of the main arguments put forth by those supporting higher pay for elected officials is that to get good help, you have to pay for it. The people who represent us in Washington and Sacramento, so the argument goes, could make much more money in the private sector. If we want to keep this talent making our laws, we should pay them market rates. Problem is that this line of reasoning doesn't explain why approximately 98% of the elected officials run for re-election instead of looking for better-paying jobs in the private sector. Still, assuming the truth of the argument for the moment, what the public is being told is that legislating is a full-time profession and should be treated as such when pay scales are adjusted.

But in this country, we have a longstanding tradition that our representatives should not be professional politicians. Rather, they should be one of us, a neighbor, coming out of the community with a special feeling for it and a desire to serve the public. And after serving for a short time, he or she should return to the community.

By contrast, when today's politician retires, he or she more often remains around the Capitol as a lobbyist. The body politic will be healthier if we return to the days of the citizen-politician.

There is no doubt that most of our elected politicians work hard and keep long hours. State and federal legislators may actually deserve a pay raise. But the American people would more likely support a pay raise if, instead of limiting outside income, the politicians limited terms of office and returned to being citizen-politicians rather than professional politicians

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