LAST WINTER Congress proposed to raise the members' salaries (together with those of federal judges and certain top officials in the executive branch) by 50 percent and, in exchange, to limit outside income. The members backed down before a firestorm of protest fanned by radio talk-show hosts. A major problem remained, though: Too many officials supplement their incomes through speech fees (honoraria), gifts, and other means that raise questions of influence peddling and conflicts of interest.
Now the House of Representatives has passed a better bill. The new pay raise is more modest, and the members have closed more ethical loopholes.
The Senate leadership tried hard to get its colleagues to follow suit, but failed. Senators chose a smaller pay raise and only a very gradual elimination of honoria. Theirs was the less courageous course, and is likely to be revised in the near future. President Bush had agreed to sign the pay-ethics package.
Through cost-of-living increases and a wage hike, affected salaries in the House (most of them now $89,500) will rise almost 35 percent by 1991.
That's hefty, but part of the increase is catch-up for several years of flat salaries. In return, representatives will surrender the right to receive honoraria and other professional fees beginning in 1991.
Also, they can't accept gifts worth more than $200 (except from family members), and stricter limits will be imposed on expenses-paid trips.
Many lawmakers, most executive-branch officials, and virtually all federal judges have incomes below those of people with comparable expertise and responsibilities in the private sector. The new legislation narrows that compensation gulf somewhat.
But the most important need is to eliminate the backdoor payments that are, if not legal bribes, kissing cousins. The House has made a good start. The Senate will have to catch up.