For Staff Bonuses, No Dollar Left Behind

This article appeared in The Hill on September 5, 2007.

The year-end spending spree is a hallowed Washington tradition. Bureaucrats fear nothing more than the budget cuts that result if they don't spend all the funds they've been allocated. And Congress frequently asks the Government Accountability Office to investigate the extent of late-breaking spending requests. But it turns out that legislators engage in their own spending binges, especially when control of Congress is shifting to the other party.

At the end of 2006, after the Democrats had won control of Congress but before they had taken office, the outgoing Republican majority voted its committee staffers unusually generous raises — with some staffers receiving significant double-digit bonuses.

Congressional staff salaries are capped at just below the official salaries for members of Congress (currently $165,200), but other than that, congressmen and committee chairmen are largely free to pay their staffers any amount they choose. "Equal pay" and immigration laws presume that certain jobs are worth certain salaries, but members of Congress face no such rules in paying their own staffs.

On the House Agriculture Committee, for instance, many Republican staffers got bonuses of around $12,000 at the end of 2006. For some junior staffers, that amounted to 27, 33, even 48 percent of their annualized salaries. Compare that to bonuses of around $8,000 in the final quarter of 2005.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee showed similar patterns. In 2005, when the Republican leadership was spending its "own money" on year-end bonuses, several staffers received less than 10 percent of their annual salaries, while a few lucky staffers received extra payments of as much as 17 percent.

But when GOP Energy and Commerce bosses faced losing their chairmanship after the 2006 election, they decided to leave no dollar behind for the Democrats. Lucky staffers then got windfalls of 31 percent on a $35,000 salary, 30 percent on a $50,000 salary, 18 percent on a $100,000 salary, and so on. At least 15 committee staffers got bonuses of between $11,000 and $17,600.

It's easy to see that congressional committees often give their staffers big bonuses at the end of the year if there's money left in the till. Better to make the staff happy than to run the risk of a stingy House Administration Committee cutting the committee's budget next year. Members and committees are also known to sharply raise a longtime staffer's salary shortly before his retirement in order to increase his pension.

As his first order of business in the new Congress, former House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) sponsored a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

"The federal government must be lean and efficient and fiscally responsible," Goodlatte declared. "We must work to both eliminate every cent of waste and squeeze every cent of value out of each dollar our citizens entrust to us."

Too bad he didn't remember that rule when he was handing out bonuses to his lame-duck staff.

House Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), meanwhile, proclaimed that Republicans lost the November elections because "we spent money without requiring accountability, so much so that sometimes we have looked to voters like Democrats-lite."

Meanwhile, he was authorizing windfall pay raises for his staff.

Salaries vary depending on money available in given office accounts, leaves of absence taken by staffers to work on campaigns, and the practice of splitting salaries between member and committee budgets.

Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they choose, up to an annual ceiling, so there's nothing illegal about year-end bonuses, even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses.

But this pattern illustrates a big difference between the private and public sectors. In the private sector, if your customers become dissatisfied with your product, you tend to make less money. In the public sector, you get a couple of months to double-dip before you lose control of the money. For participating in a Congress that voters booted out of office, these bonuses are a handsome parting gift.