THE CENTRAL reason for the intense dispute over fees paid to members of Congress by outside groups for articles they write and speeches they make can be clearly glimpsed in the figures just made public by the House of Representatives.
These honorariums can become a lucrative source of income to supplement a House member's regular $89,500 salary.
With 20 House members still to file their reports, these fees, often paid by special interest groups with an eye on pending legislation, already total nearly $5.9 million for last year, according to Common Cause, a citizen lobby that tracks the reporting process. When all reports are finally in, the total could climb to the $6.7 million reported two years ago, or even higher.
Under existing House rules, members of the House may keep the equivalent of roughly 30 percent of their regular salary in such fees. For most members that amounts to $28,850. House leaders earn somewhat more.
Thus, it is not difficult to understand why members of Congress are so reluctant to bar the receipt of such outside fees: they want, and in most cases need, the additional income.
Nor is it any secret that those who earn the most lucrative honorariums tend to be the more senior and influential members of Congress, leaders who hold positions enabling them to influence the course of legislation which the outside groups that pay those speaking fees want passed, modified or killed.
The House Democratic and Republican leaders kept an average of more than $28,000 in these fees last year. House Speaker Jim Wright, under fire for alleged violations of House rules, earned $30,000, for example, and Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., $28,750. The two top Republican leaders, Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., and Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., kept $29,600 and $26,800, respectively.
Often, senior House members gross far higher amounts -- Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Col. grossed $114,376, for example -- but typically turn over to charities the excess above what they are entitled to keep as personal income. It is also evident from the just-disclosed figures that most of the outside fees come
from groups that have an interest in the legislation over which the House member invited to speak exerts some influence.
Financial organizations tend to invite members of the banking committee to speak. Defense contractors like to hear from members of the Appropriations and Armed Services committees. Unions, from members serving on the labor panels.
This is not unnatural, of course. A group of accountants would presumably rather listen to a speech on changes in the tax laws from a member of the tax-writing committee than from a member well versed about foreign aid to Egypt.
Nonetheless, these direct financial connections between those who want laws shaped to their own particular interests and those who influence and enact those laws inevitably pose serious ethical issues.
Does a member who receives a $1,000 fee from a union for a discussion of labor laws over breakfast, and then votes to kill an offensive amendment to organized labor in committee that same afternoon, for example, act from personal conviction, from the preference of his hometown constituents -- or from the appeals of the union that just paid him the $1,000 fee?
Most House members are scrupulously honest in this process, but the moneyed connections here can surely present unwholesome temptations. They can cause conflicts of interest. Most certainly they can give off the appearance of a conflict, arousing public suspicions that do not enhance respect for the legislative process or for Congress as an institution.
The answer to this, it seems to us, is for Congress to vote -- on the record -- its members a reasonable pay increase and to link that raise to a prohibition against the acceptance of any honorariums from outside groups.
That may not be the perfect answer. But it would reduce the temptations for, and the appearance of, any conflicts of interest arising from this unhealthy process. And it would assure the public that it is paying the actual salaries of its elected representatives -- and not sharing that with the dubious largess of outside special-interest groups.
Thus, such a reform would add great clarity to the now muddled question of who pays the income of members of Congress.