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After cashing last paychecks, House members vow to hold the next ones

Published October 8, 2013 6:17 pm

Politics • Lawmakers stand in line to donate or withhold pay during the shutdown.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • More than 200 House members now say they're not going to take any pay — or will donate it — during the government shutdown in a show of solidarity to the 800,000 federal workers who are furloughed and at the moment, going unpaid.

Of course, for House members, many of whom are well-off, it's an easy offer to make since they actually get paid once a month from their $174,000 annual salary and that happened the day before the government closed.

The Constitution says members of Congress have to be paid, though what they do with that paycheck is up to them. Some plan to donate their salary to charity during the shutdown, others, like Utah Republicans Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart have asked the House Clerk to hold their pay.

If the clerk was so inclined, she doesn't have to do anything until the end of October anyway.

"It's not as if any of them has the ability to say, 'Don't pay me for this month or this work,' unlike everyone else who won't get a paycheck or are otherwise screwed up because of this," says Joe Hunter, a former chief of staff to then-Rep. Chris Cannon and a longtime Hill staffer who is now in the private sector.

"Members of Congress cannot decline their pay. They're going to have to affirmatively do something, write a check to charity, write a check back to the Treasury, which they can do," Hunter says. "[But] come the end of the month, they'll once again get their full paycheck."

As it became clear the budget impasse would extend the government closure beyond a couple of days, the spotlight quickly turned to the pockets of Congress: Would they still be taking taxpayer money if they were the ones whose inaction cause the shutdown?

The short answer is yes.

But, as of Tuesday, The Washington Post counted 226 members of Congress who had said they would donate, refuse or hold in escrow any compensation they received until the country's federal workforce and agencies were back in operation. For most, it wasn't a sacrifice.

The average net worth of a House member in 2011 was $6.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which calculated the number using public financial disclosure statements. Senators have an average net worth of nearly $12 million.

Of course, not all members are wealthy.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is a former high school teacher and lobbyist whose net worth is ranked in the lower third of House members by the Center for Responsive Politics. Utah's other members mainly fall in the middle of the pack.

Bishop says he plans to give more of his salary to charitythan usual, and he's identified some deserving causes. But the Utah Republican wasn't one touting his plan and only reluctantly talked about it.

"They won't withhold a portion of it, so it's either all or nothing and to be honest, that doesn't mean a heckuva lot," Bishop said. "It just means getting it later than earlier."

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, says he'll donate his salary from the time the government is shut down to a charity that will help those affected by the closure. Before Congress halted automatic pay raises, Matheson had annually given his most recent pay hike to charity.

Senators are paid more frequently than House members, receiving a paycheck twice a month, with the last payment landing on Friday and the next set for Oct. 18.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says he will donate his salary during the government closure to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His Utah Republican colleague Mike Lee also says he plans to donate a portion of his salary to charity once the shutdown ends.

When first asked whether he'd continue to get paid, Lee had told KUTV that yes, he would. A day later, Lee said he'd give some unspecified portion of it to charity.

While Lee took some heat for that confusion, other members' answers to the pay question have caused outright consternation.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., told the Omaha World Herald that "dang straight" he was going to take his paycheck, noting that other members were just seeking headlines.

"Whatever gets them good press," Terry told the newspaper last week. "That's all it's going to be. God bless them. But you know what? I've got a nice house and a kid in college, and I'll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That's just not going to fly."

Terry later said he was "ashamed" of his comments and apologized. He said he would ask for his pay to be withheld until the government is up and running.

And if that's before Oct. 30, the House Clerk won't have to do anything.

tburr@sltrib.com