The Senate, the last place in the federal government where officials can still pocket money from special interest groups for making speeches, voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to abolish honorariums, which critics characterize as a form of bribery.
By a vote of 72 to 24, the Senate adopted the ban on speaking fees as part of pending Democratic legislation that seeks to reform the campaign finance system. But it is not clear whether the bill ever will become law.
Although the Senate adopted a similar ban on honorariums last year as part of a campaign finance bill, the proposal died because the House and Senate could not agree on a reform measure.
The large margin in favor of the ban suggested that many senators do not expect the bill to be enacted this year. A similar indication came as the Senate voted, 49 to 46, for a proposal by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to restrict unearned income from investments.
Senators currently earn a government salary of $101,900 a year, and they are permitted to collect up to $23,568, or 27% of their total pay, in honorariums from special interests. Under law, the fee for a single appearance cannot exceed $2,000. There are no existing restrictions on senators’ unearned income.
No other salaried employees of the federal government--not even House members--can accept honorariums for speaking appearances. Speaking fees were banned in the House earlier this year in exchange for a salary increase. Members of the House now earn $125,000 a year.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), author of the honorarium ban, said that the payments have become little more than a way for special interest groups to get the attention of senators. Sometimes, he said, senators are not even asked to make a speech in exchange for honorariums.
“Let’s not delude ourselves,” Dodd said. “You are not being invited because you are a great orator, because you are Cicero. They are paying you $2,000 because they think you might listen to them. . . . We must end the perception that the men and women who serve in this body have a price tag on them.”
Some of the 24 senators who voted to retain honorariums took a political risk because the issue has sometimes been used effectively against incumbents by their challengers. The vote margin probably would have been narrower if senators had expected the campaign finance reform measure to be enacted into law.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who led the opposition, argued that it would be unfair to cut honorariums for those senators who depend on the fees without an equivalent pay raise. He acknowledged that such a pay raise would not be approved by a majority of senators.
“Either raise the pay or leave the honoraria alone,” Stevens said. “Fair is fair.”
He said that some senators had told him privately that they would be forced to leave the Senate if they were prohibited from using honorariums to supplement their government salaries. He said he has often depended upon the fees to maintain two homes--one in Washington and one in Alaska--and to transport his family between the two locations.
To this, Dodd replied: “Most American people will not understand that $100,000 is an inadequate compensation.”
Stevens also argued that senators will no longer be likely to travel around the country making speeches if they are not paid to do so. He recalled an occasion not long ago when he made a speech to the American Bar Assn. for no compensation, while a former government official who followed him to the podium was paid $25,000.
“If we do away with honoraria,” Stevens said, “that role is going to be filled by people who think they know what’s going on in the Senate instead of those who do know what’s going on.”
But Dodd argued that senators ought to see speechmaking as part of their job.
“I think there is a heightened degree of public responsibility here,” he said. “The fact there is not a carrot of $2,000 will not reduce that.”
Although it bans honorariums, Dodd’s amendment would permit senators to collect the equivalent of up to 15% of their annual salary in other forms of earned income. After the vote, Moynihan offered his amendment imposing the same limits on unearned income, such as funds received from investments.
Moynihan argued that it would be unfair to limit earned income without also curtailing unearned income. Otherwise, he asserted, the Senate--already filled with multimillionaires--would become an exclusive preserve of the super-rich.
Many senators currently receive more than 15% of their annual income from investments.