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Activists Angry Over Stealthy Senate Pay Boost

July 19, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Consumer and conservative activists howled in outrage Thursday at what one called a ″pre-midnight raid on the Treasury″ by the Senate in voting itself a $23,200 pay raise.

At least five members said they would refuse the money or give it to chairty.

Well after the evening news shows, with few reporters in the Capitol and on a day when a nuclear arms agreement and an economic summit would dominate headlines the next morning, the Senate voted late Wednesday night to boost member salaries nearly 23 percent.

Approved 53-45, the provision would close the gap between the $125,100 annual salaries that the 435 House members have been collecting since last January and the $101,900 that senators get.

The raise would be coupled with a renunciation of fees for speeches to special interest groups now accepted by nearly two-thirds of the senators. Those honoraria now are limited to $27,337 a year for Senate leaders and $23,068 for others.

Some frequent performers on the rubber chicken speaking circuit actually could get an honoraria windfall this year.

Those who have already pocketed the $23,068 limit on honoraria this year could make a total of $134,364 in pay and speaking fees together in 1991 if the legislation is finished and signed by President Bush before Congress goes on vacation next month.

″Obviously, the senators are ashamed of what they are doing,″ said consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who for three decades has spearheaded grassroots revolts against pay increases for lawmakers. He called the vote a ″pre-midnight raid on the Treasury.″

Current Senate salaries are already 4 1/2 times the average family income of Americans and six times the average pay of workers, Nader said. The raise will put them ahead of 99.5 percent of Americans.

″The majority of senators has stiffed the American people and this time, the voters will remember in November,″ he predicted, citing the defeat of three House members last fall over the pay raise issue.

Alan Keys, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative group, said justifying the raise by giving up honoraria ″is a slap in the face to every taxpaying American.″

″They ridicule their constituents ... telling us that the only was we can expect them to be honest and resist the temptation of special interest groups is to pay them more,″ Keys said.

Trudy Pearce, an analyst for Citizens for Congressional Reform,. another conservative group, raising pay in return for ending honoraria was like ″rewarding someone for returning the money he just stole from a bank.″

″A raise is supposed to be a reward for a job well done. A $350 billion deficit on the heels of the second largest tax increase in history is anything but a good job,″ she said.

Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., acknowledged that many senators ″are afraid to death of the 30-second television spot″ attacking them for voting themselves a pay raise. ″But there are just times when the institutional vote demands that we stand up,″ he said.

Of the 33 senators who face re-election in the next two years, 25 opposed the pay increase and only eight supported it. One of the eight, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., complained, ″Too often some members are eager to vote against a pay raise but all too willing to accept the money.″

Three senators up for re-election next year said they will duck the increase.

Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., who voted for it, said he will set up a fund to divert the money to charitable causes. Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., against, said he will turn back to the government any portion ″more than I would have gotten″ had there been annual cost of living increased the past 15 years.

Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., another opponent, said he would donate the increase to charity each year, with the first donation to go to a fund to help families of Pennsylvania soldiers killed in the Persian Gulf War.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., also voting against the raise, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who voted for it, said they would give the extra money to charity.

Joined by spokesmen for conservative groups, Nader had only a glimmer of hope that a mushrooming of outrage from voters could derail the increase before the bill containing it is voted in its final form and sent to President Bush.

House leaders made it clear they have no intention of blocking a Senate pay raise.

″It was a wise and overdue action ... wholly justified and proper,″ said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. ″The House will concur.″

The Senate voted itself the increase, effective as soon as Bush signs the legislation, as a surprise amendment to a $2.3 billion appropriations bill for operating Congress next year.

A similar bill was passed by the House last month, but without the Senate pay raise, and the two versions must be reconciled.

Senators could begin collecting the raise as early as August, depending on how quickly negotiators for the two houses work out minor differences and get it to Bush’s desk.

The president supported the House increase two years ago and has consistently endorsed raises for high government officials.

Supporters of the pay raise justified it as the price of banning honoraria and the perception that those fees buy influence.

″It’s been our contention all along that fulltime public officials with the responsibility to lead this country should be adequately compensated by the public to whom they’re responsible,″ said Mike Mawby, a lobbyist for Common Cause, a citizens group long opposed to honoraria.

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