Lawmakers Have Long Rewarded Their Aides With Bonuses
WASHINGTON -- While Congress has been flaying companies for giving out bonuses while on the government dole, lawmakers have a longstanding tradition of rewarding their own employees with extra cash -- also courtesy of taxpayers.
Capitol Hill bonuses in 2008 were among the highest in years, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks payroll data. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to the data. That was the highest jump in the eight years LegiStorm has compiled payroll information.
Total end-of-year bonuses paid to congressional staffers are tiny compared with the $165 million recently showered on executives of American International Group Inc., which is being propped up by billions of dollars of U.S. government subsidies. But Capitol Hill bonuses provide a notable counterpoint to the populist rhetoric and sound bites emanating from Washington these past weeks.
Last year alone, more than 200 House lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, awarded bonuses totaling $9.1 million to more than 2,000 staff members, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of office-disbursement forms. The money comes out of taxpayer-funded office budgets, and is surplus cash that would otherwise be forfeited if not spent.
Payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to $14,000. Lawmakers, at their own discretion, gave the money to chiefs of staff, assistants, computer technicians, and more than 100 aides who earned salaries of more than $100,000 a year.
This has gone on for many years. There is no prohibition against handing out excess cash. The lawmakers say it is a nice incentive to get staff to conserve budgets, and it rewards hard work and long hours.
"Most aides could make more money elsewhere, but choose to work on Capitol Hill because they believe in public service," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who along with other top House leaders awarded bonuses. (Senators also give bonuses, but documents showing those payments aren't yet available.) Mr. Daly said bonuses are a small perk for underpaid government employees.
Each House office receives between $1.3 million and $1.9 million annually in government funds to pay for office expenses, including salaries. In 2008, some lawmakers returned excess cash to the government, including Rep. Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican (who also gave some bonuses) and Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat. Meredith Salsbery, a spokeswoman for Mr. Walz, said aides are asked to be "thrifty and conscious of taxpayer dollars" and that Mr. Walz "knows the power of setting a good example."
The 435 House offices typically return a total of about $1 million or $2 million a year, or less that 0.5% of the overall budget for office expenses, but the amount can vary widely. In 2006, for example, lawmakers returned just $36,549.
Disbursement forms show that dozens of aides working for the Financial Services Committee got a bonus from panel Chairman Barney Frank. Spokesman Steven Adamske said the Massachusetts Democrat gives bonuses to staffers because "government workers are pretty low paid." He said several aides who got bonuses had worked long hours during 2008 on the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Top Financial Services Committee Republicans also gave their aides bonuses. "These were merit bonuses for people who had performed especially well," said Larry Lavender, an aide to Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Overall in the House, disbursements were roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Six lawmakers who lost their re-election races paid more than $300,000 in bonuses to 89 staffers. Thelma Drake, a Republican, gave about $40,000 in extra compensation to about a dozen aides after losing her Virginia seat. Mrs. Drake said the payments were a form of severance to "good staff members who worked their hearts out and who were about to lose their jobs."
A handful of lawmakers who retired handed out a total of $283,000 in bonuses. After Republican Heather Wilson gave up her New Mexico seat in the House to run unsuccessfully for the Senate, she gave 13 aides bonuses as high as $3,000. "My practice over 10 years in Congress was to give bonuses at the end of the year," she said.
Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California handed out the largest payments, giving $14,000 apiece to three aides. Spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said her boss is "proud of the bonuses she is able to give."
Last fall, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall left the House to run for New Mexico's Senate seat. Several members of his House staff took leaves from their government jobs to work for his campaign. When Mr. Udall won the race and returned to Washington, his office budget had accrued a large surplus. He decided to spend the surplus funds by increasing salaries for nearly his entire staff for a short time.
Disbursement forms show that in late December, Mr. Udall temporarily increased salaries for 19 of his 22 employees to an annualized rate of $163,795. Among those who earned the higher pay were staff assistants, a scheduler, an executive assistant and a part-time employee.
Spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said Mr. Udall traditionally "adjusts salaries at the end of the year based on seniority, merit and unused leave" when his office has a surplus.