Does Congress feel your pain?
Its politicians insist so.
Dozens, and more each day, say they’ll at least delay their congressional pay as long as they remain unable to reopen the federal government at full throttle.
Yet that raises a number of issues. Start with the U.S. Constitution and its mandate that members of Congress must be paid their full salaries every year they’re in office. So they will eventually get paid, no matter what they decide to do with the paychecks.
Add that to an American public so disgusted with Capitol Hill politics, observers say, that it’s prone to dismiss self-imposed pay cuts as cynical grandstanding.
“Most constituents are going to see this as a publicity stunt,” said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University who’s studied Congress. “They aren’t going to be impressed.”
Rather, he suspects voters would prefer folks in Congress perform the jobs they were elected to do rather than turn away a token amount of their salaries.
As for any savings, it’s not much. Federal spending hovers around $3.5 trillion a year. Members of the House and Senate are paid $174,000 a year. If every last member of Congress returned their pay to the U.S. Treasury, that would trim daily federal spending by 0.0027 percent.
Still, the gesture is reaching faddish proportions in Washington. Members of both parties say they’ll ding their income one way or another in solidarity with more than 800,000 furloughed federal workers.
A CNN survey found that by Thursday 29 senators had declared they’ll donate their pay to charity or the U.S. Treasury or refuse to accept a paycheck. Nearly 100 members of the House made similar promises.
Republican Reps. Sam Graves, Vicky Hartzler, Ann Wagner, Billy Long, Jason Smith and Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, all of Missouri, say they’ve requested their pay be withheld until the budget battle ends. So did Kansas Republican Reps. Kevin Yoder and Lynn Jenkins.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has said she’ll donate her pay during the shutdown to charity.
“It’s important that we all feel the pain,” McCaskill said.
In a speech on the House floor, Smith said that “members of Congress are no better than anyone else.”
Republicans Sen. Roy Blunt and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer and Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay, all of Missouri, have said they will continue to take their pay.
Blunt dismissed the pay issue as minor.
“It’s just a small issue relative to the big problems we face,” he said.
Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Republican Reps. Mike Pompeo and Tim Huelskamp, all of Kansas, did not respond to queries for this story.
Whatever route the office holders take, the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes the withholding of pay problematic. The amendment forbids any change in members’ pay during a Congress, designed to prevent lawmakers from being able to raise their salaries.
“The U.S. Constitution requires that lawmakers’ salaries be paid in full regardless of whether or not there is a lapse in appropriations,” said Dan Weiser, communications director of the House’s Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. “However, members may request that the chief administrative officer not deliver their paychecks until the government reopens.”
Even though some members of Congress say they won’t accept, or cash, their paychecks until the shutdown is over, the money will still come. Then they’ll have to decide whether to volunteer a check to the U.S. Treasury, or to a charity of their choosing, to compensate for the days other federal employees were sent home from work.
However small, the redirected pay will provide some benefit to the government and favored charities.
Still, whether senators and representatives give back or give away their pay, those who study Congress say it’s mostly symbolic.
“It’s a ploy,” said John Hibbing, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied public attitudes toward Congress. “It’s a gambit.”
Mostly, he’s found that while incumbency is the surest route to winning a seat on Capitol Hill, Americans hold little regard for Congress as a whole.
Gallup’s approval rating for Congress has been stuck near 15 percent all year, nearly a historic low. A Rasmussen poll found that more than 80 percent of Americans favored a congressional pay cut until the budget is balanced, and nearly 50 percent said the president’s pay should also be docked.
Still, Hibbing said individual members of Congress — either by holding up approval for the federal budget over opposition to Obamacare, or by refusing to allow changes to the health insurance overhaul — are doing what their particular constituencies want.
“As constituents,” he said, “we don’t agree with each other.”
Various groups have called for Congress to ditch its pay during the shutdown that hit Tuesday.
Some ethicists argue that whatever the public relations effect, Congress has a moral obligation for self-imposed pain.
“Certain people are being paid who need it the least,” said Clancy Martin, chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “And the people who needed it the most are not getting paid. …
“If nothing else, (a returned paycheck) seems like a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those not being paid.”
Any paycheck paybacks, said political scientist Charles O. Jones, might either get overlooked or dismissed by the public. Headlines about the government shutdown are likely to crowd out news about any sacrifices by elected officials, he said. Those who do notice, Jones said, might even be alarmed.
“The act of forgoing pay presumes that you, as the member of Congress, are judging that this is going to last a while,” said the professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. “That’s not what people want to hear.”