WASHINGTON (AP) — When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., was asked whether he’d continue to collect his paycheck during the government shutdown, he offered a defiant response: “Dang straight.”
Days later, a penitent Terry changed course, telling his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, that he was “ashamed” of his comments and would have his salary withheld until furloughed government workers got paid again.
The reversal piqued the interest of a potential challenger and generated a front-page headline that any member of Congress would dread: “Terry sorry for putting his needs above others.”
As the partial shutdown drags on, the question of whether to take the money or not has created a quandary for many lawmakers who support their families on their government salary. With hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed, any member of Congress who takes a paycheck runs the risk of being accused of being out of touch while the government shutters offices and cuts services.
“You’re caught between the needs of your family and your need to get re-elected,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who served during shutdowns in the 1990s.
Aware of the potential political peril, dozens of lawmakers have made arrangements to have their salaries set aside, donated to charity or returned to the Treasury Department.
The Constitution prohibits lawmakers from withholding their own salary; they can only vote on the pay of future Congresses. But members can request that Office of the Chief Administrative Officer delay their paychecks until the government reopens.
Members of the House and Senate are among the highest paid officials in government, earning $174,000 per year. Congressional leaders receive about $20,000 more per year. That’s a total cost to taxpayers of more than $258,000 per day while the government is shut down and hundreds of thousands of other federal workers have their paychecks delayed.
Constitutional requirements and personal needs have created political problems for several lawmakers.
In the shutdown’s first few days, Democrats came out with an attack ad against Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who represents a district full of military retirees and government workers near Tallahassee.
Southerland, a funeral director, said during an August 2011 town hall meeting that his congressional salary was “not so much” considering he had to cut ties with his family’s business. The House Majority PAC, an outside group that supports Democrats, dredged up Southerland’s comments for the TV ads, a move that could boost Democratic challenger Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.
Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., told WTVD-TV in Raleigh that she would continue to take her pay because “I need my paycheck. That is the bottom line.” Ellmers, whose state has a large military population, held the line for two days but then relented under pressure from local media.
Terry, who represents an Omaha-based district, was dismissive of fellow lawmakers who were forgoing pay or donating it to charity during the shutdown.
“Whatever gets them good press. That’s all it’s going to be,” he told the World-Herald. “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.”
By last Sunday, the congressman said he had put his “needs above others in crisis. I’m ashamed of my comments. It was not leadership. It is not how I was raised.”
He apologized for his “hurtful remarks when so many others are feeling the pain of Washington’s dysfunction.”
The next day, Democrat Pete Festersen, who serves on the Omaha City Council, said he was re-considering a bid for Congress after announcing in August that he wouldn’t challenge Terry.
Others have pleaded financial hardship and stuck with it, or in the case of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said they’re not to blame for the shutdown so they will keep their salary. “I oppose the shutdown, don’t believe in it, and did not cause it,” Ellison said.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., who spent years in local government before being elected to Congress, said he couldn’t afford to give up his pay. “I have a family to raise,” he told NorthJersey.com. “I have triplets in school and unlike some of the members on the other side of the aisle, I’m not a millionaire.”
Some of the paycheck pressure was alleviated last weekend, when the House voted unanimously to fund back pay for some 800,000 furloughed government workers. The Senate has signaled it will vote to do the same and President Barack Obama supports giving furloughed workers their pay.
More than 40 Republicans, many vulnerable to defeat in 2014, have co-sponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., that would prevent members from receiving their salary while the government stops operating.
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