Jewish World Review Dec. 28, 2001 / 13 Teves, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Congress gives to others -- and itself -- THE fund created by Congress to aid the families of victims killed or injured in the Sept. 11 attacks, it was reported last week, will pay an average of $1.6 million per family. These awards will be tax-free, and are expected to total as much as $6 billion. Congress has also passed a law exempting the Sept. 11 victims from income taxes for 2000 and 2001, and directing the Treasury to refund the taxes they already paid. While awards paid by the federal fund will be reduced by any insurance benefits the families receive, those payments too will be tax-free.

In short, those whose loved ones were killed or wounded on Sept. 11 stand to collect a small fortune, courtesy of the US taxpayer. But why should this be?

To be sure, no amount of money can make up for the loss of a beloved parent, spouse, or child to a cruel act of terrorism. But that was also true for the families of those who were murdered by terrorists on Pan Am 103 -- or at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- or in the Oklahoma City federal building -- or in the first World Trade Center attack. Yet those families were not compensated with million-dollar government awards or exempted from taxes on two years' worth of income. Why should the Sept. 11 families be treated differently?

(For that matter, why should deaths caused by terrorism be treated differently from other tragic deaths? Is the family of a Pentagon employee killed on Sept. 11 worse off than the family of a man killed by a mugger? Or by pancreatic cancer? Or on the battlefield?)

The hearts of decent people everywhere go out to those who lost a relative on Sept. 11, and millions of them have made gifts to ease the blow. More than $1.5 billion in cash has already been donated, as well as goods and services worth hundreds of millions more. That is the way to help the victims and their families: through the compassionate generosity of individuals.

But Congress has no business appropriating charity. Nothing in the Constitution authorizes it, and it cannot be done with fairness. It's admirable that so many senators and representatives wanted to help. They should have done what so many others did, and reached into their own pockets.

Speaking of congressional pockets, those same senators and representatives have just helped themselves to their fourth pay raise in five years, boosting their base salary $4,900 to $150,000.

Naturally they didn't do it openly. They relied on a Rube Goldberg scheme enacted in 1989, whereby their salary automatically grows each year -- unless they vote to block the increase. Senator Russell Feingold (who refuses to accept more than the $136,700 the job of senator was paying at the beginning of his term) tried without success to get such a vote on Dec. 7.

Legislators love to complain that there is no seemly way to give themselves a raise -- that no matter how they do it, they look bad. It isn't true. What voters find obnoxious isn't an occasional raise, it's greed and underhandedness. There is a right way to for members of Congress (and other legislators) to hike their salary: Vote the increase openly but have it take effect only after the next election.

As it happens, this is more than just a good idea. It is a constitutional requirement. The 27th Amendment, the one written in 1789 but not ratified until 1992, forbids Congress from raising its pay in mid-term. Presumably that includes "cost-of-living" raises that kick in automatically unless blocked. Which would seem to mean that the latest congressional raise -- like the five others collected since 1992 -- is unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, there is no one to enforce the constitutional prohibition. Senators and representatives refuse to obey the amendment's clear language, and the Supreme Court has refused to hear a suit demanding that they do so. That means it's up to voters to force Congress to heed the Constitution. But when was the last time voters forced Congress to do anything?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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