Despite the shock and anger they displayed when confronting AIG executives over their bonus schemes, lawmakers seem to share the same generous philosophy when rewarding their own staffs with taxpayer money in a recession.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the average House aide earned 17 percent more in the fourth quarter of 2008, when Hill bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to data compiled by LegiStorm.
That was the biggest upward blip in the eight years LegiStorm has recorded payroll information.
Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they want, up to an annual ceiling, so there’s nothing unlawful about year-end bonuses – “even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses,” according to a report by CNN.
The CNN report could not resist comment on the irony as to the latter “post-election” bonus phenomenon.
“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.”
So much for the Congressional angst about rewarding AIG execs who presided over a debacle that has shaken the economy to its global roots.
Indeed, reports the Journal, six lawmakers who lost their re-election bids divvied out over $300,000 in bonuses to 89 staffers.
Republican Thelma Drake, for example, parceled out $40,000 in extra compensation to about a dozen aides after losing her Virginia seat. Drake characterized the bonuses as a kind of severance, deservedly going to “good staff members who worked their hearts out and who were about to lose their jobs.”
While the Journal was not able to glean the bonus data on the Senate side, there was plenty of activity in the House chamber to disclose.
In 2008, some 200 House lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- awarded bonuses totaling $9.1 million to more than 2,000 staff members, according to the Journal report.
The welcome largesse is actually surplus taxpayer cash left in office budgets. If not expended it must be returned.
There’s not a lot of money returned, however.
According to the WSJ, House offices normally return a total of about $1 million or $2 million a year -- or less that 0.5 percent of the overall office expenses budget. In 2006, a particularly miserly year, lawmakers returned only $36,549.
CNN reported at the time about the 2006 phenomenon: “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.”
While Hill bonuses are small change when compared to the AIG windfalls, it’s all relative.
The extra payments in 2008 to chiefs-of-staff, assistants, computer technicians and other aides ranged from a few hundred dollars to $14,000 – a nice boost even if you are already earning in excess of $100,000 per annum.
Even those who might be well served to be models of thrift are spreading the taxpayer wealth.
The Journal noted that dozens of aides working for the Financial Services Committee got a bonus from panel chairman Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Frank spokesman Steven Adamske said his boss gives bonuses to staffers because “government workers are pretty low paid.”
He added that several aides who got extra pay had labored long hours during 2008 on the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.
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