From the very outset of the 16-day government shutdown last fall, members of Congress recognized its potential for political damage. Many of them, seeking to contain the possible fallout, pledged to give back some of their federal salaries earned while the government was not functioning.
At the time, there were questions about the sincerity and political expediency of the pledges and whether it was even possible for lawmakers to decline their pay.
Five months later, some answers are beginning to emerge.
At least 116 of the 244 lawmakers who pledged to return part of their pay have donated more than $494,500 to charity or back to government accounts to help pay down the federal deficit as of Thursday evening, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
Veterans groups, crisis pregnancy centers and high school sports teams have all received donations from Democrats and Republicans. As did Catholic and Jewish aid organizations, the Boy Scouts of America, groups helping Colorado flood victims and dozens of food banks.
A complete picture of which members kept their promise could be elusive, as lawmakers are not required to disclose charitable donations. But the House issues quarterly reports on members who return money to the U.S. Treasury, and that list will be released Friday for the period that included the shutdown.
The rest of the information came to light after The Post asked each of the 237 members who said last fall that they planned to donate some of their salary in solidarity with the federal workers who were not being paid during the shutdown. More than 80 did not return repeated requests for information in recent weeks. After the data were published online Thursday, at least seven members not originally listed came forward to say that they also donated after the shutdown.
The largest known single donation came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who gave $10,000 to the Consortium of Catholic Academies, a nonprofit group supporting inner-city Catholic schoolchildren in the Washington Archdiocese. Feinstein ranks among the wealthiest members of Congress and is co-chairman of an annual fundraising dinner for the organization. Also donating $10,000, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) split the money between the Wounded Warrior Project and the North Dakota National Guard Foundation.
Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) donated to a Pittsburgh television station that buys Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor. Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) wrote checks to 48 charities across his district. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) sent more than $9,300 to the University of Tennessee, and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) distributed $5,000 to food banks in his state. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a breast cancer survivor, donated about $2,000 to a breast cancer awareness group called Beer for Boobs.
The federal government also got in on the action. At least 15 lawmakers sent back more than $87,400 to the Treasury, including Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), $5,049.76; Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), $5,476.15; Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), $6,098.28; and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), $7,733.33.
Congressional watchdogs said they could not recall a similar instance in which so many lawmakers donated so much money in response to a single event.
“I have never seen or heard of this kind of mass refund,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.
“This is the right thing for lawmakers to do, but they really were not doing it for the right reasons,” Holman said. “The real reason is they wanted to avoid looking callous to America after being unable to govern.”
The political motivation did not matter to Jo Poshard, who runs the Poshard Foundation for Abused Children, which helps pay for cribs, car seats, clothes and groceries to aid abused or disabled children in southern Illinois. The group doesn’t receive state or federal funding, so Poshard said it was a relief in December when she received a check for $1,190.03.
“I can do a lot with $1,190,” she said. “I can help a lot of kids.”
The donation came from Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.), who wrote checks to Poshard’s foundation, a senior center and a food pantry.
In the weeks after the shutdown, congressional approval plummeted to the single digits and has climbed only slightly since. Forty-six percent of Americans said they believe their representative deserves to return to Congress after the 2014 election, the lowest levels in polling since 1992.
Alan Abramson, a professor at George Mason University who tracks the nonprofit sector, said that the congressional donations mirrored what a celebrity might do to repair a damaged public image.
“I think members of Congress are looking for popular charities which are addressing an important need and that are safe,” he said. “They’re not going out on a limb by supporting Wounded Warriors as compared to if they’re supporting PETA or some other edgy charity.”
Dozens of members, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), said they would part with their earnings only if federal workers and congressional staffers weren’t retroactively paid for time served during the impasse. Congress eventually voted to pay those workers.
Of the roughly 80 lawmakers who didn’t respond, about 60 were Republicans, including Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Steve Southerland II (Fla.) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah). All three actively supported shutting down the government if a spending agreement with the White House could not be reached. Bachmann called the shutdown “exactly what we wanted.”
But another GOP face of the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), followed through on his promise. He donated $7,627.40, equal to 16 days of take-home pay, to YES Prep, a Houston charter school system. School officials said that the senator and his wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, a Goldman Sachs executive, have been “longtime financial contributors.”
Lawmakers earn $174,000 annually — House and Senate leaders earn slightly more — and haven’t voted themselves a pay raise since 2009. But for the first time, most members of Congress are worth at least $1 million annually, according to a recent analysis. Some members, including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), are so wealthy that they donate their entire salaries to charity or family foundations.
Most organizations contacted in recent weeks declined to confirm the gifts, citing a policy of not discussing individual donors, so most details about donations were provided by congressional offices.
Overall, lawmakers sent dozens of donations to organizations helping the nation’s military veterans.
The largest single beneficiary was the Wounded Warrior Project, a national program that assists military service members and veterans through dozens of programs. The group received more than $30,700 from 10 members of Congress, including Hoeven, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), according to The Post’s tally.
Michelle Roberts, WWP’s communications director, said that the group appreciated the donations but that “it is the fundamental responsibility of the government to disburse benefits payments to the brave men and women who served and sacrificed for this nation, a commitment that was nearly jeopardized during the government shutdown.”
Five lawmakers also donated to the Honor Flight Network, which helps transport military veterans to Washington to visit national war memorials. And four lawmakers sent checks to local chapters of the Fisher House Foundation, which helps house military families when their loved ones are seeking medical treatment at major military or VA hospitals. Dozens of other lawmakers donated to local veterans groups.
House ethics experts advised some members’ offices not to disclose information on charitable donations, saying that doing so could be perceived as formal endorsements of the organizations. But most ignored the advice.
After writing a check for $5,124.09 to the Treasury, Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) posted a picture of his check on Twitter and wrote: “With end of #govshutdown, just sent personal check for 16 days of my salary, deducting taxes, to @USTreasury.” Via Facebook, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said that he was donating $5,000 to eight different groups that “are of particular importance to me and fulfill a variety of worthwhile missions.”
After announcing plans to suspend his pay in a news release, Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) sent an undisclosed amount to the Father Fred Foundation in Traverse City, Mich. The group helps feed and clothe 125 to 200 low-income families four days a week.
Rosemary Hagan, executive director of the group, said she first learned of Benishek’s donation from reporters.
“Congress holds the responsibility for the shutdown,” she said. “A personal response as a result of [the shutdown] would be a sign of hope that compassion still resides in the hearts of our legislators, and perhaps that personal response of compassion will open greater dialogue, cooperation and action within Congress on behalf of the poor in our nation.”
For detailed information on the donations made by lawmakers, go to washingtonpost.com/thefix.