If you had money left over in your budget at the end of the year and could use it to pay a little extra to your staff who'd toiled long hours on a major recent project, would you do it?

Many people would probably say yes. And if they work in many arenas, doing so would probably be called good leadership. Rewarding the people who had worked the most hours, gotten the least amount of thanks and done all of the grunt work for middling pay--rather than the people in charge--would likely be seen as enlightened management.
But not, apparently, in government. The Wall Street Journal has a report out that examines the extra pay staffers were given as end-of-the-year "bonuses" by outgoing Congress members. One of the most-read articles on the site as of Tuesday morning, the story is drumming up debate over whether the extra cash should have been returned to the U.S. Treasury instead.

The article reports numbers from LegiStorm, which tracks Congressional salaries. It found that the 96 lawmakers who left or were defeated in the 2010 midterm elections paid their employees 31 percent more in the fourth quarter of 2010 than they did, on average, in the first three quarters of the year. Lawmakers who were returning to their jobs, meanwhile, awarded their aides just a 16 percent increase over prior quarters, almost half what the departing members paid out.

House members, the article reports, are given allowances that range between $1.4 million and $2 million a year to run their offices. Staffers' salaries, the bulk of that operating budget, average about $60,000; a maximum of $168,411 is permitted per year, or $14,034 per month. The practice of using up as much of the budget as possible, the article states, is widespread on both sides of the aisle.

The same happens in businesses and other organizations everywhere, of course. How many people haven't found themselves looking for ways to spend some part of their budget at the end of the year to ensure they're not stiffed by the bean counters in the future? It's a common practice, if not necessarily the most ideal form of leadership.

Many readers of the Journal article argue that this is taxpayer money that's being spent, and should be returned to the Treasury. "One last thumb in the eye of the taxpayer," read one of the more benign comments.

But is it really? A spokesperson for one of the congressmen, Florida Democrat Kendrick Meek, whose fourth-quarter payroll increase was among the largest, told the Journal that staffers worked "long hours for relatively modest pay compared to their private-sector counterparts. As such, our office was able to extend a modest severance." Georgia Democrat Jim Marshall sounded a similar note: "I'm glad I was able to help a little bit with these folks who were out of a job through no fault of their own."

The same people howling that this is taxpayer money that should be returned to the Treasury would probably expect a severance if they lost their jobs in the private sector. And therein lies the crux of the debate: Is it a bonus or a severance?

I can understand why some people would be upset, particularly when the payouts are repeatedly cast as bonuses, that extra cash is being doled out to Hill staffers rather than returned. Bonuses are usually designed as a retention tool for employees, helping to motivate them to work more efficiently and more wisely in the year ahead. And of course, if the extra payouts are little more than vengeful cleaning of the coffers by losing candidates, that's hardly any way to run things either. As usual, some kind of middle ground--offering a little extra money without leaving the drawer dry--is probably the best way to go.

But it's a little shortsighted to believe there shouldn't be some kind of extra payment to staffers who are suddenly out of a job because their boss didn't win. Maybe that's a risk everyone is willing to take in Washington. But companies wouldn't be able to attract the best and brightest to come work for them if they were known for kicking people out on the street without a shred of severance when the going gets rough. And leaders in Washington can't either.