When Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, joined the House Armed Forces Committee in 1986, defense contractors began lining up to invite him to deliver speeches for $1,000 to $2,000 per engagement.
Such talks last year helped Hansen earn an extra $18,000 - a year's wages for many Utahns - on top of his regular $89,500 congressional salary.Utah's two senators, Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn, earn nearly twice as much from speeches. Hatch kept $31,000 in speech fees last year, and Garn kept $34,900 - almost the legally allowed limit. Garn and Hatch earned thousands more - but gave it to charity, which also gave them a personal tax break.
That pay for speeches or articles is called honoraria. Congressmen can receive up to $2,000 for each speech or article. Senators may keep fees amounting to 40 percent of their congressional income, about $35,000. The cap for House members is 30 percent of their income, about $26,000.
Even though honoraria are perfectly legal, critics such as the government watchdog Common Cause say lobbying groups and government contractors use it essentially to buy votes.
Congressman say their votes cannot be bought, especially for a $1,000 speech fee. Still, they admit they welcome the extra money to help stretch salaries that studies say are too low to maintain houses both at home and in Washington, D.C.
The honoraria debate is of interest again because of a proposal to ban honoraria in exchange for higher salaries. It was endorsed this week by House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas.
But it may put congressmen in a no-win situation. If they vote against the package, they'd be criticized for continuing to accept fees from interest groups. And if they vote for it, they'd be criticized for giving themselves a pay raise.
For such reasons, the last time a similar proposal came to a vote in the Senate in January 1987, it was overwhelmingly killed by a 2-93 vote.
Meanwhile, residents need not look further than the Utah delegation to see why concerns arise that honoraria could be vote-buying. For example, the year before Hansen joined the Armed Forces Committee, he earned $7,510 in honoraria and spoke to no defense contractors. After his appointment, his speech fees increased to $18,000 when he spoke to 12 defense contractors.
A Common Cause study showed that Hansen wasn't the only defense committee member attracting interest from defense contractors. In fact, the contractors paid a total of $521,310 in 1987 to members of House and Senate armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees.
Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer said, "The nation's top defense contractors have been paying substantial fees to key members of Congress who control defense decisions to buy their influence, not their oratory. . . . Public officials should be paid by the public, not private interest groups." Hansen responds, "It's ridiculous that people think you can be bought for a $1,000 speech. What does happen is it gives groups a chance to spend a day with you and explain the way they think."
To show it doesn't buy votes, Hansen tells of a visit and speech he gave to G.A. Technologies, which wanted to explain its new proposed method for destroying aging chemical arms. Hansen voted against that method.
Hansen also says groups that do not offer honoraria have good access to Congress, and are not penalized for not offering speech fees. "Our offices are like busy doctors' offices with people coming in all the time."
Garn, like Hansen, is also on a defense subcommittee, but received no honoraria last year from defense contractors. His honoraria come mostly from his major area of expertise _ banking. He is the former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and is now its ranking minority member.
In 1986 and 1987, Garn received at least $23,500 from 16 different banking, credit union, mortgage, and savings and loan groups. Garn may have earned more from such groups because his financial disclosure statements for 1986 do not list groups he spoke to that donated his honoraria directly to charity.
Hatch likewise attracts heavy honoraria from groups interested in his main assignment on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. He was its chairman, and is currently its ranking minority member.
That committee oversees health issues, and Hatch earned at least $29,000 from speeches in 1986 and 1987 to medical and drug companies and insurance groups.
The committee also oversees issues about labor unions, business rights and productivity, and Hatch earned at least $47,000 in 1986 and 1987 from groups representing big business, labor unions, contractors and labor managers.
Hatch also attracted honoraria from law schools and law groups likely interested in his assignment on the Judiciary Committee; from music, film and entertainment groups likely interested in his assignment on a subcommittee overseeing copyrights and patents; and from groups representing colleges and chools likely interested in his work on an education subcommittee.
Utah's other two congressmen, Democrat Wayne Owens and Republican Howard Nielson, earn much less in honoraria. But it often comes from groups interested in their committee assignments.
For example, Nielson is on subcommittees dealing with telecommunications and energy and attracted honoraria from the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association, the U.S. Telephone Association and the Edison Electric Institute. Owens is on a transportation committee and attracted honoraria from the American Trucking Association.
Utah congressmen acknowledge that honoraria are often perceived as something evil.
Hansen points out that political challengers will often attack incumbents for accepting honoraria. Democrat Gunn McKay is running against Hansen again this year. "McKay attacked me this year for giving a speech in Las Vegas. His ads made it sound like I had a doll on each arm and a cigar in my mouth.
"The word around Washington is that if you are attacked for taking honoraria, you must be doing something right because groups won't invite you to talk to them unless you are an expert in an area or are on a key committee."
Laurie Snow, Garn's press secretary, said the senator has often said that some congressmen have abused honoraria and likely have been influenced by it, although that has not happened with Garn.
But despite such problems, congressmen say an advantage to honoraria is that it helps make ends meet on a salaries that at first glance may seem large, but don't stretch far.
"Washington is an expensive place to live. A house that may cost $50,000 in Utah costs $150,000 here," Hatch said. Hansen adds, "It's tough to try to maintain a house in Utah and one in Washington, two cars and everything else. So, yes, it's nice to have a few extra bucks from honoraria."
A commission that studied congressional pay recommended in 1986 that it be increased from the then $77,400 wage to $135,000. But President Reagan scaled that back to the current $89,500 salary. Another report from the commission on salary levels is due on Dec. 15.
Another advantage to honoraria, according to Hatch, is that the system allows him to earn money for charities back home. In fact, he donated almost $50,000 to Utah charities last year from honoraria.
"My staff asks me why I don't just earn the $35,000 or so that I can keep. They say the extra work just kills you _ and it does. It is sometimes inconvenient and takes time away from the family. But I feel it is something worthwhile to do."
For example, he said a Utah university asked him to donate $10,000 to help endow a research chair. "I said I don't have $10,000, but that I would try to earn it through honoraria _ and did." He quickly adds that he hopes other charities do not pester him for similar help "because I like to donate to causes because I want to, not because I have to."
5000+v 5000+v 5000+v 5000+v 5000+v 5000+v 5000+v 5000+v Would Utah congressmen vote to ban honoraria and raise salaries? Garn, Nielson and Owens say yes, Hansen is undecided and Hatch says no _ mainly because he doesn't think congressmen deserve raises because they haven't balanced the budget.
But the congressmen also predict the measure will likely not pass soon.
Nielson says the major obstacle for passage will likely be in the Senate because "senators can get almost their limit of honoraria without even trying" and may not want to give up that income source.
Owens said about the proposal to raise salaries and ban honoraria, "I think it's a great idea, but I don't think the public will buy it. You would have to get widespread public acceptance before it will pass."