Face-saving by Congress over pay is mainly symbolic amid crisis - The Buffalo News
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Face-saving by Congress over pay is mainly symbolic amid crisis

WASHINGTON – In Congress, it’s becoming one of the face-saving trends of the government shutdown: A lawmaker vows to give up his or her pay for as long as it takes to get the crisis resolved.

And this week, Reps. Chris Collins and Tom Reed, as well as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, embraced the trend, vowing to suspend their pay until Congress decides to fund the government.

It all sounds noble enough, but on closer reflection, it’s a little more complicated.

For example, House members are paid only once a month, on the last day of the month, meaning that members who vow to suspend their pay won’t suffer for it until November. After an aide was told of that fact, Collins’ office Wednesday reversed course and said that for the length of the shutdown, he’s donating his salary to the Boy Scouts of America.

Then there’s the fact that some members of Congress – who make $174,000 a year – would have a harder time than others if they gave up their pay. Based on the designed-to-be-vague personal financial disclosure forms that lawmakers must file every year, of the five federal lawmakers who represent the Buffalo area, there’s only one sure-fire millionaire: Collins.

The bottom line on which lawmakers sacrifice a salary, then, may just be their personal bottom line.

“It’s the ones who can afford to do it who do it,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “So it’s really symbolic.”

But this is politics, so symbolism matters. So as of late Wednesday, according to a tally kept by the Washington Post, at least 90 lawmakers had decided to go without their salary for the length of the government shutdown.

“The American people sent us to Washington to do a job,” Collins, R-Clarence, said Tuesday in a news release announcing he asked House leadership to suspend his pay. “If we cannot live up to that obligation, we should not be taking a paycheck, a paycheck that is funded by the taxes paid by our fellow hardworking Americans.”

Collins changed course, though, a day later, announcing he would give his pay to charity. Grant J. Loomis, his spokesman, said Collins decided to do that in part because of the difficulty of just returning his pay.

Under the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, lawmakers can’t simply stop being paid, although they can have it temporarily suspended and put into escrow or donate it to charity.

Realizing he would still eventually get paid even though he asked that his pay be suspended, Collins opted to give the money to the Boy Scouts.

“It’s just a clearer way of doing it, taking it to the next step,” Loomis said.

Meanwhile, Reed, R-Corning, asked that his pay be withheld for the length of the shutdown. Both he and Collins have proposed legislation that would shut off the pay of lawmakers in the event of a shutdown, but such bills could not legally take effect until 2015 at the earliest.

“Congress has a job to do and if Congress can’t complete one of its primary responsibilities, it doesn’t deserve to get a paycheck,” Reed said.

Similarly, Schumer, D-N.Y., asked that his pay be put into escrow. “I’m going to be in the same boat as my staff. If they’re not getting a paycheck, neither will I,” he said.

Yet just as the House members won’t feel an immediate pinch from asking that their pay be suspended, neither will Schumer.

Senators are paid twice a month: on the last day of the month and on the 15th. Because the check processing starts a few days earlier than that, New York’s senior senator can expect to start going payless if the shutdown lasts into next week, an aide said.

Two local members of Congress – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – have not announced that they plan to give up their pay during the shutdown.

Neither of them comes close, in terms of wealth, to Collins, a successful small businessman who is worth at least $22.4 million. Personal financial disclosure forms show that Gillibrand is worth between $166,004 and $415,000, while Higgins – a career politician – is worth no more than $106,000 and possibly much less than that, given his credit card and mortgage debts.

Spokesmen for both Gillibrand and Higgins responded to the lawmaker pay issue with the rhetorical equivalent of a roll of the eyes.

“Tea party Republicans want to make this about members’ paychecks,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Gillibrand. “But this should be about the paychecks of the nearly 800,000 government workers who have been furloughed over a reckless temper tantrum.”

Meanwhile, Higgins’ communications director, Theresa Kennedy, said: “While the idea of members suspending their pay would seem to some a noble suggestion, it gets us nowhere toward the goal of ending this unnecessary shutdown.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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