Congress heeds signals, stops sipping its COLAs ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Whether President Clinton deserves the credit, or it belongs to Ralph Nader and the hosts of radio call-in shows around the country, Congress appears to have gotten the message loud and clear on the matter of congressional pay raises.

The decision of the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate to forgo next year's annual cost-of-living increase is a commentary on how sensitive they have become to Congress' public image as a body driven by self-interest and greed.

Clinton triggered the latest decision with his own proposal to freeze the annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for federal employees. Eight freshman Democratic House members, led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, then circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter to all 435 House members proposing that in fairness they impose the same freeze on their own COLAs, due to raise their salaries about 2.1 percent by law next January.

In the first day alone, 23 House members signed on, including some Republicans, and the leaders recognized a freight train coming when they saw it. At the same time, first-term Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was pressing for a pay freeze in the Senate.

In earlier years, the reaction to Clinton's action might have been to ignore it and hope the public wouldn't notice that Congress once again was a bunch of specially privileged characters.

But ever since the uproar over the 1989 House pay raise and the so-called "midnight" raise voted later by the Senate, Congress has been cooled off. On those occasions, Nader and associates rallied the public and radio call-in hosts stirred the pot, generating massive protests.

With the possible exception of the public outrage expressed in the scandal of the House bank overdrafts, no other single issue has inflamed voters against Congress than the matter of pay raises.

For a long time, the argument was successfully made that members of Congress needed more money because they had the added burdens of maintaining two homes -- one back home in their districts and another in Washington -- and traveling back and forth. But as congressional salaries have grown -- now $133,644 a year -- the argument has lost its persuasiveness with average Americans living on much, much less.

Gutierrez is a former Chicago city councilman elected to a new "Hispanic seat" carved out of parts of the old districts of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and Rep. Bill Lipinski. He notes that when he decided to run for Congress in November 1991, the job paid about $124,000. In March 1992, when he won the Democratic nomination, it was paying about $129,000, and has jumped another $4,000 since then.

But Gutierrez says he and many of the other 109 members of the huge freshman class in the House elected in November campaigned on reform platforms including promises to restore "a relationship of trust" between the voters and their representatives. And nothing has hurt that relationship more, he says, than what people back home see as the excessive perks of Congress, from free parking spaces to fat salaries.

When he first drew up his proposal to freeze congressional COLAs, Gutierrez says, a senior member of the House leadership told him on the House floor that it "will never see the light of day." Freshmen in the House, tradition holds, should be seen and not heard. But the Class of 1992 is so large, and was elected in a campaign year of such voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, that it may be emboldened more and more to make itself heard.

The legislation passed in 1989 providing automatic COLAs for congressional salaries was designed, after the first big pay raise furor, to give the legislators protection against inflation without having to vote each year to raise their own salaries. Its authors apparently didn't count on federal employees having their own COLAs frozen, leaving members of Congress out there alone as special-privileged recipients of automatic pay increases.

Congress' latest self-sacrifice on the matter of pay goes only so far, however. Remaining in place is the 3.2 percent COLA for this year. Even so, the voice of Main Street is being heard on the pay issue, after years of having been ignored.

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