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Timing, packaging are keys to raising congressional pay, Gingrich says

On Sept. 30, the day after House and Senate conferees decided to allow themselves and their colleagues a pay raise, Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., stood before the National Press Club at high noon and swore they had done no such thing.

"It's not a pay raise," the speaker said. "It's a cost of living adjustment."Gingrich is right, of course, in that the 2.3 percent raise legislators now expect to receive in the new calendar year does nothing more than redress some of the inflation in the last one. And that is to say nothing of the previous four years, each of which Congress has dutifully voted to deny itself the adjustment it would otherwise be entitled to under existing law.

But Gingrich was also pleading the case for managing congressional pay increases in salable, sensible doses. Timing and packaging are the keys. And it does not hurt when a speaker who is popular with the anti-government crowd is willing to speak out on behalf of a pay raise.

"I think it is vastly healthier to establish a pattern where (members) get a cost-of-living increase that's routine," Gingrich said. "The only alternative to that is every 10 or 12 or 15 years you have to have a massive pay increase that is extraordinarily hard to pass and that causes enormous turmoil."

Gingrich should know. A few years ago, when he and his fellow Republicans were still in the minority, Gingrich noted that a February 1989 proposed pay raise had "sparked a level of anti-congress feeling that is more intense than any political feeling since Watergate."

And, he added, that was just fine with him.

"The more people look at congress and the more detailed they look," Gingrich said, "the better off we will be in winning elections."

However, even then, Gingrich personally was not resistant to higher pay. In fact, he was incensed at the Senate for voting to block the raise. "We in the House have to make an issue of people who live in mansions surrounded by servants defining what our salary will be," he said.

Gingrich knows how lethal a distraction a pay increase can be for a speaker, especially for one beset by ethics woes and restive troops. That proposed 51 percent pay raise of 1989 helped bring down Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas.

The new speaker was Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who undertook that November to settle the payraise matter once and for all. Foley quietly proposed a base pay of more than $120,000 (by the year 1991) with cost of living adjustments to follow automatically.

Gingrich was not only supportive, he was the deal's star salesman. His posture offered political cover to many a wavering Democrat. The House GOP leadership even produced a letter, signed by their campaign chairman and by Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, promising not to make the pay raise an issue in the 1990 congressional elections.

The Democrats made reciprocal promises, and the package was made more palatable by the inclusion of a ban on honoraria (the speaking fees that had allowed members to expand their pay by as much as 30 percent).