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House members handed out bonuses to staffs during budget crisis

Defeated and retiring lawmakers paid an average bonus of about $4,000. Returning lawmakers paid an average $2,300.

May 24, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • A spokeswoman for Rep. Loretta Sanchez, right, said that even with the bonuses, many of her staff members earned less than the average House salaries for their positions.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Loretta Sanchez, right, said that even with the bonuses,… (Susan Walsh / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Even as deep federal budget cuts loomed at the end of last year, members of Congress from both parties paid taxpayer-funded bonuses to their staffs.

Overall, House members spent about $21.5 million more on their office payrolls for the fourth quarter of 2010, when bonuses are traditionally paid, than they spent for the average of the three previous quarters, according to LegiStorm, a Washington group that tracks congressional pay.

Defeated and retiring lawmakers paid an average bonus of about $4,000. Returning lawmakers paid an average $2,300, the group found.

The money came out of the average $1.5 million allocated to each office for expenses including salaries, travel and bottled water purchases — money that, if unspent at the end of the year, goes back to the Treasury. Some lawmakers have boasted of sending leftover funds from their office budgets to the Treasury to show their frugal ways.

Former Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) was at the top of the bonus-spending list, paying out more than $200,000. Overall, 20 members of California's 53-member House delegation said they paid bonuses last year, including five who spent $100,000 or more.

"These are young people who are working very hard at very moderate pay," said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), who paid her staff an average bonus of just under $9,000.

Lawmakers are not required to report congressional staff bonuses. The data compiled by LegiStorm, a nonpartisan watchdog that posts congressional pay and other congressional data online, examined the average payroll for offices for the fourth quarter compared with the average for the three prior quarters.

Democrats' average fourth quarter salary rose 21.2%, while Republicans' rose 16.7%, the group said. The Democratic average was higher because of their heavy losses in last year's election.

Jock Friedly, LegiStorm founder and president, said it could often be easier for defeated or retiring lawmakers to award bonuses because they no longer faced voter scrutiny.

"When you talk to members who retire, they often say that they feel bad for their staffers because they're being thrown out of jobs through no fault of their own and they don't get any kind of severance pay," he said. After Republicans lost control of the House in 2006, their fourth-quarter salaries rose more than those of the Democrats.

Lawmakers have broad discretion to set staff salaries, generally up to a maximum $168,411 a year.

The payments came after the federal government finished the year with a $1.3-trillion budget deficit that has fueled a drive to slash federal programs.

Though the bonuses came at an awkward time for members of Congress, Friedly said, "This is clearly not the same kind of thing as Wall Street bonuses," and for most, is not much more than a month's pay. Also, bonuses can be paid only if there is money left in the lawmaker's office budget, he said.

Lawmakers offered a range of justifications for paying bonuses, though some refused to comment.

"Recruiting quality staff for quality constituent services is difficult enough given limited resources," said Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who paid an average bonus of about $3,700. "Skimp on salaries further and you will skimp on constituent services, to the detriment of the district."

Honda noted many of his staff members earned $30,000 to $60,000 annually and often worked 60 to 70 hours a week.

But staffers in his and other offices earning $100,000 or more a year also received bonuses.

Spokeswomen for Matsui and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) said that even with the bonuses, many of their staff members earned less than the average House salaries for their positions. Sanchez's legislative director, for example, earned $66,305 last year, even with a bonus, less than the House average of $89,674 a year for the same job.

"Given the budget allowance that members of Congress are given, it is not possible to pay staff in my office wages that compare with what they would pull down in the private sector," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who paid an average $5,000 bonus, an amount she describes as a "modest financial recognition."

Like a number of other lawmakers, Lofgren said she returned money from her office budget to the Treasury, even after paying bonuses.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said that while it was important for lawmakers to attract and retain top talent, "they have to be responsible stewards of the country's checkbook. And while all the congressional staff bonuses don't add up to a lot in the context of the federal budget, lawmakers have to keep in mind that many of their constituents are without salaries — much less bonuses — these days."

A spokesman for Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who paid an average $2,000 bonus to staff, said that when the congressman was a car dealer, he paid bonuses to employees and had continued the practice in Congress to staff that had "consistently worked hard and accomplished the goals set before them." The spokesman added that bonuses were provided only to a reduced staff with a lower overall payroll.

Thomas A. Schatz, a former congressional staffer who is president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said, "Saying that these people work hard or that they work long hours, that's part of the job," noting that highly competitive congressional jobs often lead to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

Republicans, in one of their first acts after taking control of the House this year, voted to cut office spending by 5% to save an estimated $35 million. It will be up to each lawmaker to decide what to cut.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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