The Midnight Raid of Bobby Byrd

July 19, 1991

What is wrong with the Senate voting itself a big pay raise? Everything.

For one thing, it is too much. This $23,200 raise means senators will have raised their salaries 107 percent in the past 10 years. Inflation (as measured by the broadest consumer price index) has been only 48 percent in that period.

For another, this is a silly and cost-inefficient way to deal with the perceived problem of conflict of interest. Senators justify the raise on the grounds that it allows them to outlaw honoraria. Certainly it is a good idea to end the practice of senators accepting cash from special interests nominally for speeches but actually for giving those special interests "access." Last year, senators accepted $1.4 million in tainted and untainted speaking fees. Yet the pay raise will cost taxpayers $2.3 million a year.

With cost-benefit geniuses like this in the Senate, no wonder the national debt tripled in the past decade. That brings up another point. In part due to deficits and other disasters Congress helped produce in the 1980s, millions of Americans have seen their way of life and economic expectations stagnate or even decline. For senators to give themselves a raise while the debt soars, programs are slashed and millions of ordinary citizens feel real pain is as insensitive as it is irresponsible.

Senators know this. That is why Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., arranged for a late-night vote, without advance notice to the press or opponents of the raise.

Senators also know the public is opposed to the salary grab. The proof is in the roll-call breakdown. Those running for re-election next year voted 23-8 against the raise. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is up in 1992, voted "no." She did not dare do otherwise. When the House passed its pay raise in 1989, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a possible opponent in the 1992 Senate race, voted "no." (Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who isn't up for reelection until 1994, voted "yes" Wednesday night.)

Senator Byrd, Majority Leader George Mitchell and others made the point that without the raise, only millionaires could afford to be or would become senators. Would become? Nearly a third of the present senators are millionaires, most of them multi-millionaires. The pay-raise bill does nothing to stop this trend. In fact, it supports it, by sharply limiting the earned income (from a family farm or boatyard or insurance agency, etc.) a senator can keep, but not limiting unearned income (from dividends and interest). Reverse that, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., once proposed, and you wouldn't need to worry about the Senate having too many Rockefellers and Kennedys.

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