Rep. Jim Cooper: End Congressional 'Death Gratuities'

Image: Rep. Jim Cooper: End Congressional 'Death Gratuities'

Monday, 25 Nov 2013 02:25 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Survivors of deceased lawmakers should not get "death gratuities," says Rep. Jim Cooper. He does not believe Congress should be in the business of making such payments, he said.

"Members should choose the death benefit they want by buying life insurance like regular citizens," Cooper told The Hill. "No special treatment for Congress."

The Tennessee Democrat introduced the bill after Congress agreed to pay $174,000 to the widow of Democratic New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a move which angered many in light of the nation's deficit issues. Lautenberg's worth was estimated at $55 million to $116 million.

No matter what the financial situation of a deceased lawmaker might be, the government should not be paying death gratuities, Cooper said.

"The death gratuity became customary starting in 1918 before the birth of modern life insurance (1924), the creation of Social Security (1935), the establishment of civil service pensions (1942), and health benefits under Medicare (1965)," Cooper said. "A lot has changed since 1918, and the gratuity custom should have been abandoned a long time ago."

The payment to Bonnie Englebart Lautenberg was included in a short-term spending bill, which one group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said made no sense when other spending items were being cut.

"The average member of Congress is much wealthier than the average citizen, and has sufficient resources to purchase life insurance and otherwise plan ahead," Cooper said in a news release. "While there is reasonable debate about congressional compensation, a death gratuity is unseemly and unnecessary. When you look at what Congress should be prioritizing, it is outrageous."

Typically, the House and Senate offer an amount equal to the lawmaker's salary, reports the Congressional Research Service. According to Senate rules, the death gratuities must be offered in the next appropriations bill after the death, and the payments are made as gifts, so survivors pay no income taxes on the money.

In addition, Congress can go into adjournment in memory of the deceased member or appoint a delegation to attend the lawmaker's funeral, as it did recently after the death of Rep. Bill Young, a Florida Republican.

And according to the Congressional Research Service, a member's funeral also can be paid for with public funds, with the House or Senate's sergeant at arms authorized to make arrangements for lawmakers to attend the funeral and to "defray the funeral expenses of the deceased member and the expenses of duly appointed congressional participants."

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