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Congress Gets More Liberal--With Itself

September 28, 1997|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Don't look now, but hair shirts and self-loathing may be going out of style on Capitol Hill. The Republican-controlled Congress, which came to power in 1995 railing against career politicians and their perks, is suddenly moving to make its own cocoon a little cozier.

In a step that would have been unthinkable not long ago, House and Senate leaders are jockeying to get lawmakers a pay raise. The House has made it harder to lodge ethics charges against its members. Congress just voted to increase the money it spends on its own operations. And there's even some quiet talk among House members about watering down a ban on gifts they can accept from lobbyists.

They may not be able to pull all of this off. Pay-raise opponents, despite losing a crucial test of strength Wednesday, may yet derail the salary hike, a 2.3% cost-of-living boost that would bring members' pay to $136,673 a year.

But even if these goodies ultimately go down in flames, the very fact that so many lawmakers are reaching for them shows a remarkable shift.

Not long ago the public radiated an intense throw-the-bums-out attitude, and members of Congress had to grovel and repent.

Congressional leaders now seem emboldened by signs that public fury against Congress has waned. Their success in passing a balanced budget has contributed to their sense of security.

"A Congress that has reformed Medicare, balanced the budget and cut taxes receives a different level of respect," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said after the pay-raise debate.

"I can't think of a better environment, economically or politically," to accept a pay hike, said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento). "In general the public is satisfied--or as satisfied as they will ever be."

The latest Los Angeles Times Poll found that 46% of those surveyed approved of the way Congress was handling its job. That is a far cry from the public mood in 1992, when a Gallup poll put Congress' approval rating at an all-time low of 18%.

Congress-bashing is a venerable American tradition--Mark Twain wrote: "There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress"--that reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s and gave ammunition to Ross Perot and other populists.

In that climate, members of Congress became increasingly skittish about accepting pay raises, expense-paid travel and other perquisites. The last time Congress accepted a cost-of-living increase was in October 1992. Members' current salary is $133,600 a year.

Republicans, using a campaign heavily laced with anti-Washington rhetoric, capitalized on public animosity in their successful bid to win control of Congress in 1994. Once in power, among the first things they did was to chip away at the House's edifice of perks and protections.

They passed a measure requiring members of Congress to live by the same labor laws it imposed on others. They cut the number of House committees. They imposed strict new limits on the gifts lawmakers can accept from lobbyists.

This year Congress seems to be lightening up, to the dismay of die-hard reformers. Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) protested that many of the new House Republicans were elected by running against "a Congress that was arrogant, that didn't listen to people and did midnight pay raises."

The House early this year authorized a 5% increase in funding for its committees. The hike would have been even bigger if not for a rebellion by a handful of junior members. Last week, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to increase spending for House operations by 3.6% and for the Senate by 4.5%.

When the House recently approved changes in its ethics procedures, a bipartisan majority voted to make it harder for outside groups to file complaints against members of Congress. Proponents said the measure would limit politically inspired complaints. But Ann McBride of Common Cause called it "blatant incumbent protection."

Republicans also are considering watering down some of the institutional reforms they enacted with great fanfare in the last Congress. Some lawmakers are talking about bringing the House's strict gift ban in line with the more lenient Senate rules, which allow lobbyists to give senators gifts worth $50 or less.

The difference between the chambers was vividly illustrated recently when congressional ethics committees ruled that senators could accept free tickets from lobbyists for basketball and hockey games at a splashy new arena in downtown Washington but that House members could not.

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