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Mitchell Endorses 50% Pay Raise for Congress

Times Staff Writer

Despite growing opposition in both the Senate and the House, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) Wednesday endorsed the 50% pay increase for members of Congress, federal judges and top executive branch officials.

Mitchell’s endorsement is viewed as important not only because so few congressional leaders have spoken out in favor of the increase but also because it puts him at odds with the overwhelming majority of senators, who are expected to vote against the pay hike.

Wanted Smaller Hike

But even Mitchell was timid about the size of the proposed raise, which was recommended by a presidential commission and endorsed by former President Ronald Reagan before he left office. The majority leader said he had hoped that Reagan would propose “a more modest” hike.

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“If the choice is this one (50%) or none, I will support the increase,” he said.

The proposal, which automatically will take effect at midnight Feb. 7 unless both the House and Senate vote against it, calls for an increase in salaries for members of Congress from $89,500 to $135,000 a year.

Although the Senate is expected to vote against the pay hike, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has privately promised House members that he will delay any vote on the pay hike in that chamber until after the deadline--just as he did two years ago when members of Congress received a $12,500 increase.

Publicly, however, Wright has refused to endorse the pay raise and has declared: “I will neither encourage nor prevent a vote.”

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Wright’s reluctance to speak out on the issue is understandable in light of the deluge of mail that members of Congress are receiving from Americans opposed to the pay increase as well as the growing number of members who are speaking out against it. Several bills already have been introduced in the House that would prohibit the raise from taking effect.

On Wednesday, a dozen senators of both parties pledged to do everything possible to repeal the pay increase if it goes into effect, and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) called on Bush to rescind the proposal. Although Bush promised before becoming President that he would have something to say about the pay raise, he has been silent on the issue thus far.

Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), a leading Senate opponent of the pay hike, criticized Congress for establishing a system that allows salaries to be raised without a vote.

“The sneaky pay raise of 1989 is more than a matter of money,” he said. “A pay raise without a vote is stealing. A pay raise without a vote is more than mere greed, it is debauchery. A pay raise without a vote is more than mere cleverness, it is cowardice.”

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Responds to Pressure

According to sources, Mitchell endorsed the pay raise in response to pressure from House Democrats who were angry that their chamber was going to take all of the political heat for it. Mitchell said that he could support it as long as it was combined with a number of reforms, including a ban on honorariums from special interest groups, new ethics legislation and campaign finance reform.

Two of the most outspoken members of Congress favoring the pay hike are Californians--Assistant Majority Leader Tony Coelho (D-Merced) and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento). Like Mitchell, they view a 50% hike as justified as long as Congress simultaneously votes to abolish honorariums.

House members can collect honorariums from special interests equivalent to 30% of their congressional salaries and senators can take honorariums equal to 40% of their salaries. Critics argue that members are corrupted when they take money directly from special interests, even if the money is ostensibly to reimburse them for speeches.

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