Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which state Sen. Tom Coburn represents.
Many members of Congress have decided in recent days that they don’t deserve to be paid their full government salary while the federal government is closed for business.
“I shouldn’t get a congressional salary while other federal employees are denied the ability to go to work,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a 40-second YouTube video. “I’m going to take my salary during the government shutdown and donate it to the Wounded Warrior Project.”
Graham is on a growing list of lawmakers who plan to refund or donate their pay during the government shutdown, which congressional leaders warn could last several weeks. Most say their decision is a matter of fairness and an opportunity to show solidarity with hundreds of thousands of government employees sidelined without pay by the government shutdown. But the speed and enthusiasm with which some lawmakers advertised their decision appeared designed to blunt public outrage over the impasse.
As the House passed short-term spending bills and the Senate swiftly rejected them Monday night, some members began announcing their plans to participate in the pain. As the House on Tuesday and Wednesday continued passing short-term spending bills destined for failure in the Democratic-controlled Senate, even more lawmakers joined the fray.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said via Twitter that he’d decline his pay “for every day the government is shut down,” while Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) said he would return his compensation “until Congress finds a sensible solution to this harmful shutdown.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said her pay would go to a charity in her home state, because “right now, federal workers across North Dakota and the country who chose to work in public service have been forced to go without pay — including my Senate staff.”Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) also plans to donate his pay to wounded warriors and Cincinnati’s Freestore Foodbank. “I can’t accept a salary while veterans and government employees are left empty-handed. It’s not appropriate and it’s not fair,” he said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project said the group is grateful for the impending congressional donations but “most importantly, we hope for an immediate resolution to the budget and debt-ceiling debates.”
The Washington Post began publishing a list online Tuesday afternoon, and by Wednesday, at least 100 lawmakers had committed to parting with their pay. The partisan split was about even.
But donating a portion of one congressional salary during the shutdown may not be as simple and straightforward as it sounds. Even if a lawmaker decided to refuse his or her pay, the compensation is considered mandatory spending in the federal budget, and the Constitution requires that House and Senate lawmakers’ pay cannot be altered until the start of a new term.
So lawmakers will face a choice: They can continue receiving their pay and then write checks to the U.S. Treasury or their favorite charity, or they can opt to have their pay withheld and placed in escrow for the duration of the shutdown. If the shutdown continues beyond the current two-week pay period, House and Senate administrative offices will hold on to the funds and distribute them after the impasse, leaving it up to the lawmaker to decide what to do.
The flood of self-docking pay pronouncements prompted some lawmakers to suggest that colleagues were being charitable to score points. A spokeswoman for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the senator is forgoing his pay but already donates to charity “and does not believe a government shutdown should necessitate charitable contributions, compassion for fellow man should.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken fiscal conservative furious with the current impasse, told CNN on Tuesday night that he would continue accepting his pay “and spend it and tithe it” as he always has. Same with Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), two of the wealthiest lawmakers, who have always donated their congressional pay to charity. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), another wealthy member, said his shutdown pay would go to the March of Dimes.
Members of the House and Senate have been paid $174,000 annually since 2009, meaning members forgoing their pay will lose $476.71 a day, before taxes. Among congressional leaders, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) makes $223,500 annually, while the Senate leaders, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), get $193,400. Aides to Boehner and Reid said Wednesday that both leaders planned to put their pay in escrow for the duration of the shutdown. McConnell plans to donate his to a Louisville charity. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) plans to put his pay in escrow, while aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not respond to requests for comment.
Congressional pay is less than the $230,700 salary for Vice President Biden and the $400,000 salary for President Obama.
Asked Tuesday whether Obama would donate his salary during the shutdown, White House press secretary Jay Carney implied that he won’t: “Our position is that the government should be open.”
Proving that a lawmaker followed through on their promise to donate the funds may prove difficult, said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.
Congressional financial disclosure forms don’t require lawmakers to list charitable donations, so “the only way we could actually know would be if they gave their salary to charity and then took a tax deduction next year for their contribution and then showed us their tax forms,” Holman said. “There’s no other method of knowing if they carry through with these donations. So we’re just relying on the rhetoric and, quite frankly, that is quite untrustworthy.”
Returning money to the Treasury is easier to track by checking quarterly House and Senate disbursement reports. The reports for the current quarter are expected to be released in February.
While lawmaker pay is mandatory spending, pay for congressional staffers is not. Individual members and committee chairs have had to decide which staffers are “essential” and which need to stay home. Those who stay on are expected to be paid retroactively, while it’s unclear whether nonessential personnel will be paid.
The congressional furloughs are making it difficult to determine how many members are opting to part with their pay. An automatic response from a spokesman for Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said his offices are closed because of the shutdown. Reporters were asked to send a message to a general e-mail address, “however, a response may not be possible.”
David Beard and Brad Plumer contributed to this report.