For a few of the 93 freshman lawmakers sworn in last week, one of their first official acts in Congress was indefinitely delaying their paycheck.
For many, it is a gesture of solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors who will be going without their own paychecks until the partial shutdown is resolved. For others, it is a matter of good government — why should they get paid if they are failing to keep the government’s doors open?
According to press statements and social media postings reviewed by The Washington Post, at least 48 members in the House and Senate — split about equally between both parties — have announced they plan to refuse or donate their pay for the duration of the shutdown. Thirteen of those are House freshmen serving for the first time in Congress, which currently stands at 434 members in the House and 99 in the Senate, with two vacancies.
“While it is typically a day of celebration for my new colleagues and me, at least 800,000 federal employees and federal contractors are still in financial distress due to the current government shutdown,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who represents a D.C.-area district full of those employees, wrote in a letter to House Chief Administrative Officer Philip G. Kiko.
Another freshman, Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), said it was not “appropriate” for lawmakers to collect pay “while hard-working border security agents and other civil servants are furloughed.” (Border agents are essential personnel who are continuing to work, but they will not be paid until the shutdown ends.)
A spokesman for Kiko declined to share a comprehensive list of members who have made that request. But so far, the number of lawmakers opting to refuse their paychecks appears to be behind the pace set in the last extended shutdown, the 16-day partial shuttering in October 2013.
A Post tally counted as many as 248 members who made public statements declining their pay — $174,000 annually, then and now, for members of the House and Senate — during that standoff.
There is one difference from previous shutdowns: Lawmakers funded the congressional budget in the fall, along with the military and a few other departments, so Capitol Hill staff have not been furloughed.
Representatives for the top House leaders — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — did not respond to requests for comment Monday on whether those lawmakers planned to accept their pay. Pelosi makes $223,500 annually as speaker, while the Senate leaders get $193,400 apiece.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, two congressional leadership aides said separately that the top leaders did not want to turn member pay into a political flash point.
A Roll Call analysis of member wealth in the last Congress pegged the median net worth of a lawmaker at $511,000 — about five times the net worth of the average American household. Lawmakers, in other words, are typically much better positioned to withstand an income disruption than their average constituent.
Some members, one aide said, have personal financial obligations such as maintaining family homes back in their districts, paying for child care and caring for elderly relatives, and leaders did not want to be seen as pressuring them into turning down their pay. Another aide said they simply trusted members to “do what they want to do” knowing their own political dynamics.
At least one senator said publicly that he sees no reason not to cash his checks: Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in an interview last month with the Forum News Service — when he was a member of the House — that the no-pay pledges were “gimmicky” and that he was working hard for his money.
“The government isn’t shut down, only about 25 percent of it,” he said in remarks published in the Grand Forks Herald. “Some federal employees are getting paid time off.”
His predecessor, former senator Heidi Heitkamp (D), said she would donate the final days of her Senate pay, and fellow Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said the same.
While lawmakers can request that their pay be withheld, it is not quite so simple as a matter of law. Congressional administrators interpret the 27th Amendment to the Constitution as prohibiting any changes to a member’s compensation until the next Congress. Instead, they are holding lawmakers’ pay in escrow, paying it out after the shutdown ends and leaving the members themselves to decide how to use the proceeds.
Many are simply donating their paychecks outright. Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), for instance, is donating her pay to the Alzheimer’s Association.
In her letter to Kiko, she noted her past service as a Defense Department official who had to oversee furloughs during the 2013 shutdown. “I have seen up close the damage that a government shutdown has on the mission of our federal departments and the morale of our federal personnel.”
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) is splitting her pay between three food banks in her district, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he will donate his pay to a charity providing housing for homeless veterans. (Both are among the wealthiest members of Congress.)
Meanwhile, at least two bills and a proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate that members lose their paychecks during future shutdowns have already been filed.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) last week reintroduced his “Hold Congress Accountable Act,” a measure he first introduced during the 2013 shutdown, while Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) introduced the “No Work, No Pay Act.” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) would go further and write such a measure into the Constitution itself.
Schrader, in a statement announcing his bill, said of the current shutdown, “I wouldn’t expect a student government to operate this way, let alone the government of the most powerful nation in the world.”