The most ludicrous part of a government shutdown

Even as lawmakers demonstrate their continued dysfunction, they are among the federal employees considered essential -- and will keep getting paid.

By The Fiscal Times Sep 30, 2013 11:30AM

A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building © Antenna, fStop, Getty Images

By Yuval RosenbergThe Fiscal Times logo

Updated 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday.

 

Largely lost among the ironies and absurdities of the latest budgetary machinations in D.C. is this nugget: The members of Congress who failed to fund a host of federal operations starting on Oct. 1 are still getting paid during the government shutdown.

Even as they demonstrate their continued dysfunction, the lawmakers are among those federal employees who are officially considered essential -- or to use the gentler jargon that’s been in place since 1995, they are "excepted."

"Due to their constitutional responsibilities and a permanent appropriation for congressional pay, Members of Congress are not subject to furlough," a recent report by the Congressional Research Service explains.

That makes sense, at least on some level. Congress would, after all, have to pass legislation to end any shutdown and get furloughed federal workers back on the job. Yet even if some 1.2 million federal workers have to stay home, the legislators who effectively sent them there -- the same members of Congress who so often struggle to enact legislation on anything more substantive than naming post offices -- would still get their paychecks. They might face political pressure to end the shutdown quickly quickly, but they have no money of their own directly at stake. Remember that thing your mom said about life not being fair? Add this example to the list.

 

Not all members of Congress are cashing in on their stalemate. More than 100 lawmakers have said that they will refuse compensation or donate the salaries earned during a shutdown, according to The Washington Post

Other federal workers, meanwhile -- employees who have no say in whether the government stays open or not -- would at least have to wait to get paid. The last time the federal government shut down, about 800,000 federal employees got furloughed for five days between November 13 and November 19, 1995. The following month, after a short-term stopgap spending measure expired, some 284,000 employees were furloughed and another 475,000 continued to work without pay between December 15, 1995 and January 6, 1996. "Federal employees who have been furloughed under a shutdown historically have received their salaries retroactively," the Congressional Research Service report notes "However, there appears to be no guarantee that employees placed on shutdown furlough would receive such pay."

Would the dysfunction be any different if Congress had some skin in the game?

"We won’t know until we try," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution who served as a policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. Galston is a co-founder of the group No Labels, which encourages bipartisan cooperation and originally proposed the idea of a "No Budget, No Pay" law – legislation to require Congress to pass its annual budget by Oct. 1 or lose their pay until the appropriations process is completed.

"We have to do something in this highly polarized situation to change the incentives, and if somebody can come up with a better idea than 'No Budget, No Pay,' fine," says Galston. "I'm of the view that there ought to be as much symmetry as possible between members of Congress and their constituents, so for example if government workers are furloughed, why shouldn’t members of Congress experience the financial equivalent to that furlough, share the pain they're imposing on everybody else."

Rank-and-file members of Congress now get paid $174,000 a year. The Speaker of the House gets $223,500, while the president pro tempore of the Senate and the majority and minority leaders in both houses make $193,400. Including relatively lavish benefits compared to those most Americans get, congressional compensation now totals $286,000 a year, according to a recent report by the conservative Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

That's a fairly high salary, at least by the standards of most Americans -- it's 3.4 times what the average full-time U.S. employee makes, according to the taxpayers group’s report. (The report noted that if Congressional salaries were cut to $100,000 a year, taxpayers would save $39 million a year.) Chances are, though, that at least some other members privately agree with Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), who lamented recently that his staff could eventually go off and get highly lucrative lobbying jobs while he is "stuck here making $172,000." Gingrey got lambasted for that comment -- whining about that pay level is unseemly, and the congressman is certainly free to abandon his current run for the Senate and head down the well-worn path to K Street himself if he wants -- yet there's more than a kernel of truth it. Members of Congress make less than lobbyists or D.C. professionals.

On the other hand, many in Congress are wealthy enough that their level of pay might not make much difference -- and losing their paycheck for the duration of a shutdown might not be all that painful. The median net worth of the 112th Congress was more than $440,000, according to Roll Call.

Skeptics also suggest that stopping Congressional pay might not outweigh political factors, including the fear of facing a primary challenge that could cost them their job. "It might for a few members," says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a harsh critic of Congressional gridlock, "but the people who are angling to get a shutdown are driven by an ideological fervor that I think is largely immune to that kind of incentive, or disincentive."

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176Comments
Sep 30, 2013 12:50PM
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Is there really any wonder why the term "Congress" begins with a big CON?
535 Overlords and entitlement-mongers, above the law and beyond the
scope of reform.  Get out there, voters and prove me wrong...Prove they
can be stopped and that our vote still counts for something.  I am counting
on You!

Sep 30, 2013 2:22PM
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How did "WE THE PEOPLE" let them screw up our country so bad?
Sep 30, 2013 1:26PM
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Their pay is only a small part of it.  They have access to so many appropriated accounts it's not even funny.  Not to mention the un taxed personel expense accounts they have which can be spent on anything!
Sep 30, 2013 2:01PM
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And don't forget.............Congressional members can still profit on insider information. That big bruhaha a year or so ago to eliminate this long enjoyed horrific privilege (illegal for the rest of us)accomplished very little but do you hear anything about it??? 
Sep 30, 2013 3:31PM
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I personally don't care if the government is shut down for a year or two.What has it done for the average citizen,almost nothing.A government that controls or significantly impacts our economy is doomed to failure.

It happened to Rome ,Egypt,to name a few Empires. I hate to believe it but it cannot be denied,we the USA are heading in the same direction. Coruption,greed and downright lying to the public is commonplace.

A true democracy would survive ,but we don't have that luxury,instead we vote people that are popular or degrade their adversaries to convince the people they are the best alternative. Unfortunately the average perso swallows that bull**** and elects them in.

My Father gave me a good piece of advice "Don't tell me what you say your going to do, Instead show me what you did"

Sep 30, 2013 3:35PM
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Again, Vote all out and get new ones in, Can't be any worse...maybe the new ones will get SOMETHING DONE!  Call it THE GREAT WASHINGTON SHAKE OUT brought to you by the great american voter.
Sep 30, 2013 2:50PM
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Unfortunately,  WE THE PEOPLE, not longer exist.  It is now THEM THE UNCONSCIONABLES.

They are above the law, and we have allowed it to happen.  Who has a plan that can return our democratic govt to The People?  Then, how can that person be trusted with the lure of big money interest groups with their "kickback $".  Who is immune to the almighty $, and has the integrity to keep his word????

Sep 30, 2013 3:43PM
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The little book "Animal Farm" explained it all very well. 
Sep 30, 2013 3:36PM
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Is any wonder how we got this government we have now? The average American can't balance a checkbook.
Oct 3, 2013 2:17PM
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They should NOT get paid and should be FINED a signifigant amout every day the government is not doing business. I believe this should go for all elected officals, maybe that would bring some pressure on them to DO THEIR JOB!
Sep 30, 2013 5:07PM
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On a side note, if the Senate and the President refuse to negotiate, I say shut it down.  Democracy is a two way street, not autocratic.
Oct 3, 2013 2:19PM
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The most embarrassing and idiotic part of all this is that these _elected officials_, with their disgraceful 10% approval rating, will almost certainly be re-elected. You can thank the gerrymandering scam against the American public for that. It's disgusting that our government is allowed to function in this way, and that political temper tantrums punish hard working Americans while the abusers continue to collect their paychecks. As a final insult to the taxpayers, these politicians don't hesitate to vote themselves pay increases, and exemptions to ensure they continue putting our money in their pockets regardless of how negligent they are in representing our will & best interests.
Sep 30, 2013 5:01PM
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"All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others"

 

 

Sep 30, 2013 3:44PM
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AS KENNEDY SAID, DO NOT ASK WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU BUT, WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY,  FAT CHANCE. KENNEDT BELIEVE IT OR NOT WAS A MODERATE DEMOCRAT AND NOT A LIBERAL WHO ARE SELF-CENTERED
Sep 30, 2013 5:39PM
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Yea, but their staffers are. It will be fun to see those Spongebobbers laid off for a change.
Sep 30, 2013 4:43PM
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Shut down the federal citizen rape rooms --- SHUT THEM DOWN !      SHUT THEM DOWN !
Sep 30, 2013 6:05PM
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A SHUT DOWN WILL BE GREAT, JUST LIKE A HURRICANE TEARS DOWN BAD DEAD TREES, THE SHUT DOWN WILL SHAKE OUT SOME LEECHES

Sep 30, 2013 10:17PM
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you are all now witnessing the failure of big government.
Sep 30, 2013 3:46PM
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SHUT THE GOVERNMENT DOWN THEREFORE THE HANDOUTS,GUESS WHAT, A GOOD THING BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO ARE RECIEVING THEM WILL FIND A WAY TO CONTINUE IN LIFE.
Sep 30, 2013 7:57PM
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I am sure when the government is shutdown, we will no longer have to pay income taxes. From Obama's tone, there cannot be anyone at work to accept those taxes. We know Obama does not lie.
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