The House on Sunday approved a proposal by Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns to eliminate a $16.2-million salary increase for congressional staff, though the freshman lawmaker was accused of political grandstanding for his effort. "In this time of such tight budgetary constraints, I think we owe it to the American people to save money in our own House, just as we are asking Americans to do in their house," Stearns said.
The House voted 275-139 to cut the money from a spending bill that would have sent $50,000 to each House member to increase staffer salaries. But before the vote, lawmakers pointed out that Stearns, an Ocala Republican whose district includes parts of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars to send letters to constituents.
"I'd invite you to check the definition of hypocrite in the dictionary," an angry Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., told reporters.
The National Taxpayers' Union estimated last month that Stearns spent $418,019 on franked mail in 1989, making him one of the heaviest users of the "congressional frank" that lets lawmakers send free mail to voters. Stearns and the House Franking Commission dispute the study.
A few hours after cutting the salary money, the House approved by voice vote improvements in the disclosure of their franked mailings and limitations on their costs. Stearns said he supported the amendment. The action came during consideration of the $1.75-billion budget for House offices and other legislative operations.
Lawmakers had pushed for the $50,000-per-office salary increase to make the House competitive with the Senate. In 1990, House members got $477,360 for salaries of their 18-member staffs, almost $100,000 less than senators from small states. A study released Sunday said the average House aide's salary is $32,297 in Washington, though it is probably lower in district offices. Even without the increase, the staff members will get a cost-of-living raise.
Stearns acknowledged that the House staffs work hard and deserve a raise, but this tight budget year is not the time for an increase. "We must appropriate money according to what is necessary, not what is desired," Stearns said. "Let's balance our books first, and give raises second."
Stearns' amendment did not endear him to the staffers it targets. Workers called his office anonymously to object, making vulgar comments on the phone as he was discussing the measure on the House floor.
Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, editorialized against it. "In too many offices, the member is king; the staffers, serfs," Roll Call said.
Obey and other lawmakers argued that higher staff salaries would bring better laws and improved constituent services and would stop the dramatic turnover of House members' aides.
"We are slowly approaching having a turnover equal to that of McDonald's," said freshman Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston of West Palm Beach, who opposed the Stearns amendment.
Democrats also complained Stearns was trying to make points before the election. "I recognize that three weeks before the election, that there is a compulsion in this place to pose for political holy pictures. There is a compulsion to appear to be saintly and pristine, no matter what it costs the political institutions we're supposed to defend," Obey told his colleagues.
The Democrats, who control the House, saw the political strength of the amendment, however. When they discovered Stearns wanted to remove the money, they had him share the spotlight with a Democrat, Rep. W. G. Hefner of North Carolina, whose re-election campaign could benefit from the publicity, according to Stearns' staff.
Stearns, who has an opponent this year, said he has tried to cut his own office costs. He said he gave about $12,000 back to taxpayers from his staff budget last year. He voted against a House pay raise last year, and said he gives his excess earnings to charity.
This year, he's spent about $200,000 of his staff budget for the first six months, meaning he would fall under the limit again. Other members are far more cost-conscious; Rep. William Natcher, D-Ky., for example, spent about $91,000 the first six months of 1990, records show.
Despite his work Sunday, Stearns could not swallow a larger budget cut: the $500-billion deficit reduction plan endorsed earlier this month by President Bush. Stearns voted to defeat that plan, as well as another version that raises income taxes for the wealthy. He said the taxes were too high and cuts too deep in Medicare.