Obama will return 5 percent of salary: What about Congress?

April 3, 2013

President Obama's decision to return 5 percent of his salary to the U.S. Treasury in show of solidarity with federal workers might make folks wonder whether Congress will do the same.


Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks in May 2011 during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government. (Sarah L. Voisin/Post)

Members of the House and Senate earn $174,000 annually and haven’t voted to raise their salaries since 2009, knowing that increasing their paychecks would only make them more unpopular with the general public. Several lawmakers, many of them independently wealthy, donate considerable portions of their congressional pay to charity or back to the U.S. Treasury.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a double amputee and Iraq war veteran, was first to announce in late February that she planned to donate part of her earnings in protest of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. Duckworth plans to return to the U.S. Treasury 8.4 percent of her monthly salary for each month that Congress fails to avert the cuts.

Duckworth's 8.4 percent figure comes from the amount of money being slashed from discretionary federal spending accounts, which fund several primary education programs facing cuts in Duckworth’s district in the Chicago suburbs.

In the District, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) also plans to cut her pay. For each day that federal workers are furloughed, Norton plans to donate half of her pay to the Federal Employee Education & Assistance Fund, which provides emergency loans as well as child-care subsidies and other financial help for federal workers. The other half will go to her congressional office budget to compensate furloughed staffers.

The offices of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who earns $223,500 annually, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.),who makes $193,400 per year, wouldn’t say Wednesday whether they plan to take pay cuts. Anticipating sequestration, most House Republican lawmakers have spent the last several years curtailing the budgets of personal offices and committee staffs, according to several GOP aides. Boehner has also severely restricted the official travel budget -- even forcing lawmakers to take commercial jets last month to attend the installation mass for Pope Francis.

Among top leaders, only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has voiced opposition to congressional pay cuts.

“I don’t think we should do it; I think we should respect the work we do,” she told reporters in February. “I think it’s necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”

Pelosi’s personal assets topped $35.2 million in 2011, placing her 12th on a list of wealthiest lawmakers published last week by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

The wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), whose wife, Linda McCaul, is the daughter of Lowry Mays, the founder of Clear Channel Communications. The couple’s assets topped $294million in 2011, according to Roll Call. Aides declined to comment Wednesday on McCaul's finances, but said he always votes against proposed congressional pay raises.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) placed second on the list with more than $220 million in assets. Aides said he donates his entire congressional salary to charity.

In recent weeks, a handful of lawmakers of both parties have signaled plans to scale back – some doing so out of principle, others for campaign politics.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who faces a difficult reelection in 2014, detailed Wednesday how he plans to return portions of his salary and furlough 26 staff members through the rest of the fiscal year. The actual sum returned to the U.S. Treasury will equal the highest number of furlough days any one of his staffers takes, aides said, noting that most plan to take two unpaid days off, with others prepared to take four or more.

“There is no reason that members of Congress shouldn't feel the pinch like everyone else,” Begich said Wednesday. His personal pay cut and staff furloughs “won't solve our spending problem on its own, but I hope it is a reminder to Alaskans that I am willing to make the tough cuts.”

Before the congressional recess, the Senate approved a measure by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that urged – but didn’t require – senators to forgo 20 percent of their salary during sequestration. Graham, who strongly opposes steep military spending cuts that are part of sequestration, plans to donate at least $34,000 of his earnings. A spokesman said he has mentioned the American Cancer Society and the Wounded Warriors Project as possible beneficiaries.

Other senators, including Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), have introduced similar proposals. McCaskill and Nelson introduced a plan to cut congressional pay if federal agencies furloughed workers. The proposal failed, but a spokesman said McCaskill still plans to donate as much as 10 percent of her salary to charity or return it to the U.S. Treasury.

The Senate’s wealthiest member, Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) was worth $81.6 million in 2011, according to Roll Call. Aides didn’t know Wednesday whether he plans to curtail his salary, but noted his history of generous philanthropy to West Virginia charities.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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