Washington on $69,761 a year? House takes a crack at raising its pay
Rep. Sam B. Hall Jr. (D) of Texas took the microphone and told his colleagues , ''I cannot go back in good faith and tell 3,500 men and women let off from Lone Star Steel . . . that now is the time to increase our salaries.''
James M. Collins, a Republican and fellow Texan who retires from the House this year, offered this parting advice: Congress should meet part time to ''let you go home and make a living'' the rest of the time.
If there is one issue that tries the souls of congressmen, it is whether to raise their own pay. The usually sparce chamber filled quickly this week as the House tried to increase its salaries by 15 percent, or $9,099.
Ever since the first session in 1789, which set pay at $6 a day, pay has been a contentious subject on which congressional seats have been lost and won. The legislature has given itself raises only a handful of times, and it has lived with an annual level of $60,662.50 since 1979.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. has proclaimed Congress ''incapable'' of determining its own pay. And as Congress once again struggles with the issue, the Tennessee Republican may be proved correct. A House-passed plan to give Congress a $9,000 raise is in deep trouble on the Senate side.
It is the second major effort to boost members' bank accounts during the current session. A year ago lawmakers tried a backdoor scheme. In a surprise vote, they pushed through a generous tax break that would give them $75 a day in expense deductions for every day of the congressional session. A public uproar forced repeal of the measure, and members could use the tax break only during 1981.
Now the House, led by Rep. Victor H. Fazio (D) of California, has decided to knock at the front door. It has asked for a straight 15 percent raise, which supporters argue may be high. But it is far lower than the 27 percent in cost-of-living raises that Congress has foregone in recent years. Congressman Fazio admits that the timing is not good, with unemployment at 12 million. But with only days or hours left in the lame-duck Congress, now may be the only time for a pay hike.
''There is a large section of angry people who will never be able to listen on this issue,'' Fazio told reporters earlier this week. But with such unlikely allies as the Chamber of Commerce, the liberal public interest lobby Common Cause, and labor unions on their side, supporters are making a case that members of Congress, although they make far more than the average American, are among the ''truly needy.'' Among the arguments:
* Members of Congress, in most cases, must maintain two addresses - one in Washington and another in their home districts. As housing costs skyrocket in Washington, their salaries have not kept up. ''The current freshman and sophomores have not moved their families here,'' says Rep. James G. Martin, (R) of North Carolina. ''It's a danger to these families.'' Even if a member sells his house to move to Washington, Fazio points out that ''the equity from a house in 'Ashtabula' doesn't add up'' to enough money to buy in Washington. Moreover, a representative with no home back in the district risks being called a carpetbagger during the next election.
* Supporters also make a ''good government'' argument. Rep. Clair W. Burgener (R) of California charges that unless Congress pays itself more, Capitol Hill will be overrun by ''a bunch of millionaires and ne'er-do-wells.'' He adds that the congressional pay raise will extend to senior government workers, whose pay has also been frozen, so that many are now retiring or leaving government.
* Higher pay for members of Congress is better than relying on speaking fees from special interest groups, say supporters.