WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins announced Wednesday that he has asked that his congressional pay be withheld for the duration of the partial government shutdown, but his Western New York colleagues don't think very much of that idea.
“I believe it’s unfair for me to receive pay while the men and women who put their lives on the line to keep our country safe are seeing their paychecks delayed,” Collins, a Republican from Clarence, said in a statement. “I’ve requested that my paychecks be withheld until essential federal employees, like our Border Patrol and TSA agents who work to protect the safety and security of American citizens, are fully compensated for their duties during this partial government shutdown.”
Asked if he would do the same, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, noted that the Constitution actually guarantees that lawmakers get paid no matter what they say. And when asked before Collins' announcement about the pay issue, Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, dismissed moves such as the one Collins made as publicity stunts.
In addition to asking that his pay be withheld, Collins said he co-sponsored legislation that would guarantee that essential federal employees who work through the shutdown will continue to get paid no matter how long it lasts.
After seeing Collins' press release, though, Higgins responded with an uncharacteristically pointed takedown of Collins' move.
“That’s a real profile in courage," Higgins said. "Congressman Collins has requested that his pay be withheld knowing congressional pay is constitutionally mandated.”
The Constitution's 27th Amendment reads: "No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."
In other words, lawmakers have to get paid what the last Congress mandated that they get paid.
Nevertheless, Collins is at least the 65th member of Congress to publicly say they do not want to get paid during the shutdown. CNN this week counted 64 lawmakers who were trying to refuse their pay, including 51 House members and 13 senators.
Of those 64 lawmakers, 17 made a move that really will mean a personal financial loss. Those lawmakers – including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate – said they will donate their pay to charity for the duration of the shutdown.
Higgins is not about to join those lawmakers.
“I voted to end the shutdown and fund the government," he said. "I think everyone should be getting paid.”
A day before Collins made his announcement, Reed refused to discuss what he was doing with his pay during the shutdown.
"To me its about PR for a lot of folks who do this," he said. "So we will take care of it moving forward in a private way. I just feel uncomfortable trying to make a political headline out of this situation rather than just taking care of it and doing the right thing. And that right thing will be done."
Reed left unanswered exactly what he thinks the right thing is.
The offices of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, did not respond to inquiries about whether those lawmakers would refuse to take their pay during the shutdown. Neither Schumer nor Gillibrand appeared on CNN's list of senators who are doing away with their salaries.
Of course, many factors – including personal wealth or lack thereof – could conceivably weigh into the minds of lawmakers as they decide what to do about the pay issue.
Collins, a businessman before entering politics, ranked as the 13th richest member of Congress in 2017, according to an annual tally compiled by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
He had an estimated net worth of $44 million as of May 2017. But that was before Collins lost at least $5 million when the stock price of Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech in which Collins was heavily invested, collapsed in June of that year.
Federal prosecutors later charged Collins with felony insider trading, saying he tipped off his son, Cameron, about that coming stock collapse, allowing both Cameron Collins and his prospective father-in-law, Stephen Zarsky, to dump the stock. All three men deny the charges and vow to fight them in court.
In contrast to Collins, Schumer ranked 274th in wealth, with an estimated net worth of $500,000. Gillibrand ranked 306th, with an estimated $300,000. Higgins ranked 438th and Reed 440th, and both had slightly more in liabilities than they had in assets, Roll Call said.