Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn, both R-Utah, are among members of Congress who see nothing wrong with accepting money for speaking to groups that want to sway their votes.
They say such fees - called honorariums - help taxpayers avoid the need to increase salaries for Congress and help members to afford living in expensive Washington while also maintaining a home and cars back in Utah.The practice still looks sleazy, even if motives behind it are pure.
It raises questions about whom Congress is working for - the voters who pay members' $89,500 annual salaries or the special-interest groups that employ them part-time for tens of thousands of dollars more a year through speech fees.
Adding to the apparent sleaze are rules that sometimes allow members to not disclose all the groups from whom they earn speech fees. In addition, some members miss key votes while collecting honorariums; honorariums may be used to buy goodwill from charities; and rules may stretch to wind around limits on fees for each appearance.
The debate about honorariums arose again this week because annual financial disclosure forms were released.
Hatch received more in honorariums than any senator - $79,025, but gave $43,425 to charity. Garn earned a total of $61,700 but donated $26,000 to charity. Senate rules allow members to keep a maximum of only $35,800 in honorariums.
On the House side, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, received and kept $17,000, and Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, received $10,000. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, did not file his form before the deadline - asking for an extension - but in 1987 received $16,000.
The forms show most of those honorariums come from special interests keenly interested in members' committee assignments.
For example, Hatch - the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee - received many of his honorariums from groups ranging from the Teamsters union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Garn - the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee - received much of his money from banking groups. Hansen, who is on the House Armed Forces Committee, received most of his from defense contractors. And Nielson, who is on a subcommittee overseeing telecommunications, received much from communications companies.
Garn's forms do not disclose where he got $24,000 in honorariums he earned. That's because the groups to which he spoke donated the money directly to charities in his name, so rules do not require him to report their names. The practice still allows Garn to buy good will from charities that receive the money and the voters that may belong to them.
The large number of honorariums that Hatch earns for charities also allows him to shelter more of his own income in a tax deductible Keogh retirement plan. Only money earned through self-employment can be put in such plans - so the more Hatch earns in speech fees, the more he can shelter in his Keogh.
Garn's forms also indicate that ways may exist to get around the $2,000 maximum fee that may be given for any one speech.
On March 17, 18 and 19, 1988, Garn gave three different speeches to Autranet Inc. of New York City - and collected a total of $6,000. Members of the ethics committee staff say if a senator gives separate speeches to the same group he can collect separate fees for each.
During the election last year, Hansen was attacked for another aspect of honorariums - missing a vote while giving a speech for which he was paid.
Hansen collected $500 and airfare for speaking to the National Wilderness Conference in Las Vegas while enroute to Los Angeles to see a new granddaughter receive a church blessing. But the day of the speech, Congress voted on controversial catastrophic health insurance for senior citizens - which Hansen missed.
Until ways are found around political problems attached to raising pay so that honorariums can be banned - maybe such ways as raising pay in small increments instead of the huge leaps that brought voters' ire this year - the public may never be sure for whom members of Congress are working.