Monday, March 7, 2011

WSJ: Ousted House Dems gave staffers millions in extra pay

Big Payday for Some Hill Staffers


Departing members of the House of Representatives awarded millions of dollars in extra pay to aides as they closed down their offices, according to lawmakers' spending records.

The 96 lawmakers paid their employees $6.7 million, or 31%, more in the fourth quarter of 2010 than they did, on average, in the first three quarters of the year.

That's about twice as much as the 16% increase awarded by lawmakers who returned to the 112th Congress, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks congressional salaries.

The disparity suggests retiring or defeated members used remaining funds in their official expenses budgets to boost salaries for staffers before they left Washington, cash that might otherwise have been returned to the U.S. Treasury.

Lawmakers interviewed for this article say aides work hard for smaller salaries than they could earn elsewhere, and that modest bonuses are one way of offering a reward. Some said they wanted to help employees as they look for new jobs.

Because most of the departing members were Democrats, fourth-quarter salary increases in 2010 for Democratic staffers were the largest in the decade LegiStorm has been gathering such data.

Republican staffers enjoyed a similar boost when many of their employers left office at the end of 2006.

House members are given allowances of between $1.4 million and $2 million a year to spend running offices in Washington and their district.

They have discretion over how to divide the funds for official expenditures including staff, travel, district-office rent and supplies. Payroll is typically the most expensive item in their budgets.

Any unused funds are forfeited at the end of the year. Some lawmakers make a show of officially returning a small portion to the Treasury, and others do so by default. Most try to use up as much of their budgets as possible.

As a result, Capitol Hill staffers are routinely paid bonuses at the end of the calendar year ranging from a few hundred dollars to $10,000 or more. The practice is widespread in both Democratic and Republican offices.

Including bonuses, House staff salaries range from about $20,000 to $168,411 a year, the maximum permitted, and the average salary is around $60,000. Staffers can receive a maximum of $14,034 in any single month, which curbs the size of bonuses.

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Jim Marshall, a Georgia Democrat who lost his re-election bid, had the largest percentage increase in payroll of the departing members, more than doubling his spending on salaries in the fourth quarter, compared to the average for the previous three quarters.

Mr. Marshall shared an increase of $237,479 among 17 staff members, some of whom had taken leaves of absence to work on his campaign.

Mr. Marshall said that during his four terms in Congress he paid his staffers low annual salaries and returned money to the Treasury. He said this year, facing a tough race, he promised staff he would look after them if he was defeated.

"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," said Mr. Marshall, who is now teaching at Princeton University. "I think in those circumstances, most voters would have done the exact same thing."

Two departing members of Congress gave out more money in bonuses than Mr. Marshall. Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat who retired from Congress, shared an additional $254,634 among 18 staff members in the fourth quarter. Florida Democrat Kendrick Meek, who gave up his congressional seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign, gave an extra $252,978.

Mr. Berry said he did what he "thought was the right thing to do."

Through his former spokesman, Mr. Meek declined to comment. Spokesman Mahen Gunaratna said employees worked "long hours for relatively modest pay compared to their private-sector counterparts. As such, our office was able to extend a modest severance."

Florida Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, who retired, paid her staff an extra $220,664. Neither Ms. Brown-Waite nor her former spokeswoman responded to inquiries.

Details of office salaries for the nation's senators will not be published for several months. The latest records of House members' office spending, covering the fourth quarter of 2010, were released last week.

Lawmakers' use of their official allowances has come under tougher scrutiny in recent years, amid debates on government spending.

One of the first actions of the Republican-controlled House was to pass a resolution cutting members' office budgets by 5% for the next two years.