MEMBERS of the House of Representatives -- but not U.S. senators -- get a big pay raise to about $125,000 today. If you're tempted to cheer lustily for the Senate as the more frugal chamber of Congress, think again.
It's the House that should get the public applause.
There are two defects in the system taking effect today.
First, the House and Senate should be receiving the same salaries, as they normally do. One chamber is not more valuable than another in America's check-and-balance system of government.
If the House pays its members $125,000, so should the Senate.
Second, what looks like Senate frugality really is something quite different.
The difference between the Senate and House salaries is made up, almost to the penny, by the honoraria, or fees from outside special interests, that they can keep.
Beginning on Tuesday, House members may legally accept no fees for speeches and other honoraria. But a senator can still accept up to $23,568 a year.
Add this to the Senate's current $101,400 salaries and the roughly $125,000 total approximates the House salary.
Think about it. This means that those special interests that pay senators $1,500 for a 15-minute speech at a Washington luncheon, and want the senator in return to vote or not vote for a particular bill affecting their group, are paying part of the senator's salary. And unless the senator gets the maximum amount in fees allowed, he won't earn as much as his House counterparts.
The House, on the other hand, has a cleaner system. With Tuesday's raise, paid for by the public and not the special interests, comes an absolute ban on the acceptance by members of these honoraria.
So what is outlawed as unethical in the House is eagerly accepted in the Senate.
That's a shame. These honoraria bear an uncomfortable resemblance to legalized bribes. In our democracy, it is far safer for the public to pay the full salaries of its public officials than to permit outside interests with special favors to ask to supplement them.
The House has rightly banned receipt of these outside fees, beginning Tuesday. The Senate, although planning to phase them out gradually in the future, regrettably has not.
So hold the applause for the lower Senate salaries. Special interests, with axes to grind, will enthusiastically make up the difference.