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Many members of Congress have continued to spend more -- in some cases a lot more -- on the salaries of their staffs, even with national unemployment above 9% and Michigan's in double digits.

A Free Press analysis shows returning members of the U.S. House paid $19 million more for their staffs in 2010 than in 2009, amounting to a nearly 5% increase for salaries in the offices of congressmen and congresswomen who served both years.

The comparison is based on numbers from LegiStorm, a Washington, D.C.-based group that compiles spending data. Comparable Senate data were unavailable.

Two Michigan Democrats -- Dale Kildee of Flint and John Dingell of Dearborn -- were among the top 10 in salary spending. Of the top 25 spenders in the entire House, 21 were Democrats, who held a large majority in 2010.

Some Republicans spent big, too. Arizona Republican Trent Franks, who has called for "dramatically slowing" federal growth, increased salary spending on his staff by nearly $240,000 -- the sixth-largest year-to-year increase in the House.

Officeholders say congressional staffers should be paid well because most of them work long hours and many could earn more in the private sector. But there are political risks, especially in an economic climate in which many constituents have seen their salaries frozen or reduced.

"I think the public would be appalled by it, actually," said Craig Ruff, a political consultant in Lansing.

House staff pay raises are risky for lawmakers

As bad as the economy has been in Detroit, it's been worse in Flint. Unemployment has been higher. Police and fire patrols have been cut. Wages are worse.

If you worked for the local congressman, Rep. Dale Kildee, chances are good you got a raise in 2010, however. That was true of legislative assistant David Ruble, who got a $5,300 raise to $46,627 a year; true of district director Tiffany Flynn, who got a $3,300 raise to more than $138,000. Jim Lewis, a deputy district director who has since retired, saw his pay shoot up nearly $12,000 to $109,917.

Kildee, a Democrat, spent more on salaries -- $1.29 million -- in 2010 than all but three other members of the U.S. House of Representatives. His offices' outlays on compensation rose nearly 3% while Michigan and the nation dug out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Justified?

Kildee believes so, even -- or maybe especially -- because constituents are in more need of help. His spokeswoman, Erin Donar, notes the low turnover and long experience of those who work in the office: Flynn has been with Kildee for a quarter-century. Barbara Donnelly, a deputy district director, who got a $2,600 raise to $101,333, has been on his staff for 34 years -- meaning there are few constituent issues she hasn't dealt with before.

The hours are long, the work is hard, said Donar, and the congressman "believes in rewarding his staff."

Kildee, it turns out, is more the rule than the exception.

Most spend more

Using records from the House's quarterly Statement of Disbursements compiled by LegiStorm, a Washington transparency-in-government group, the Free Press analyzed staff salary spending of 429 voting and nonvoting members. We disregarded members who didn't serve all of 2009 and 2010. (Senators' records were unavailable.)

Most House members -- 330 -- spent more than the year before. In some cases, a lot more. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, spent $312,000 more on salaries. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y. (he lost in November), spent $240,000 more, mostly in the last quarter. Others, like Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, D-S.D. (who also lost re-election), spent just $41 more.

Year-to-year, these 429 House members spent $19 million more -- a nearly 5% increase. Salary spending by the whole House -- including administrative, leadership, committee and members' offices in the House -- increased from $706 million to $733 million.

"I think it doesn't set a good example when most of their constituents are going through hard times," said Phil Kerpen, policy head at Americans for Prosperity, a tea party group.

New House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has ordered a 5% cut in office spending this year, but it will be up to each member to decide where to cut. If someone wants to spend a lot less on printing or mail, for instance, he or she could spend more on salaries.

While Democrats accounted for most of the increases (there were 256 Democrats and 178 Republicans in the House last year), Republicans were well represented. Indiana's Mike Pence, who has pushed for deep cuts to government, increased staff salaries 7%, for instance.

Arizona's Trent Franks spent nearly $240,000 more to add staff, give a 2.5% cost-of-living increase and a performance bonus in December. His office said keeping experienced workers is vital.

Ranking behind only Kildee in total spending among Michigan's 15 members was the House dean, Rep. John Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat. Dingell spent $1.26 million for staff salaries in 2010 -- a 5.4% increase.

"Our goal is to have qualified staff that is hardworking, experienced and stays with the office for above-average time periods," Dingell said in a statement to the Free Press.

Among Michigan's delegation, only Pete Hoekstra, Thad McCotter and Fred Upton, all Republicans, spent less on salaries in 2010 than in '09.

Salaries a balancing act

Staffs for House members are limited to 18 permanent workers, and an individual staffer's salary can't exceed $168,411.

The average quarterly salary, as of the fourth quarter of last year, was $16,769, up from $16,060 in the fourth quarter of 2009 and $14,938 in the fourth quarter of 2005. (Majority Democrats paid more last year, Republicans paid more when they controlled the House in 2005.)

Pay typically spikes in the fourth quarter each year.

Increasing staff pay can be a balancing act for members of Congress. Brad Fitch, who heads the Congressional Management Foundation, which advises members on office policies, said 75% of members work 70 hours or more each week. Their staffs often work 60 hours or more a week.

Fitch said most Washington staffers could earn more in the private sector and the work load has increased while staff sizes have been capped.

Congressional staffs monitor what their colleagues make on LegiStorm. A member of Congress must appear both frugal to constituents and fair to staff members to keep them from bolting.

(One former staffer, who asked not to be identified because he still works on Capitol Hill, said he told his boss he wanted to earn what counterparts in other offices did but was rebuffed. He didn't leave, but he didn't like it, either.)

Retired Rep. Bart Stupak, a Menominee Democrat, said people "have no idea" how many hours staffers work.

But there are benefits: Careers are launched from the Hill, and a move from longtime staffer to lobbyist can make those years of office toil pay off handsomely. For many, if not most, service in Congress is an ideological calling. The pension and health care are as secure as any in the U.S., and overtime pay is required under federal labor law (though many top employees are exempt).

Still, said Steve Ellis, spokesman with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group in Washington, "The lawmakers have to be very cautious that they don't appear politically tone-deaf."

"It is a hard sell, there's no question," said Matt Marsden, an adviser to state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and a former chief of staff to Battle Creek's Joe Schwarz when he was in Congress. But, he hastened to add, "To retain people in the Washington economy, you have to pay them.

"But someone will look me in the eye then and say, 'But you're using public dollars to do that.' And that's a justifiable position," he said.

Giving money back

Members of Congress give raises and bonuses mostly in the fourth quarter (when they can be sure they don't need the money for something else).

That's especially true when they leave -- by their choice or voters'. Of the 20 members who increased salaries the most the last three months of 2010, 15 were on their way out.

"A bonus can serve not only to pay the staff severance but assuage their (boss') own guilt about losing an election or leaving," said Jock Friedly, the founder of LegiStorm, who has made a ritual of reporting on fourth-quarter bonuses.

To balance the political scales, some congressional offices report that they "give back" money -- spending less than authorized.

Kildee's office, for instance, reports giving back $1.5 million over his 35-year career. Scott Schloegel, Stupak's former chief of staff, said Stupak gave back more than $750,000 -- including thousands last year when he could have spent more on his way out.

"I couldn't break the bank," Stupak said.

But that money is not given back really. It's just not spent by that member. It remains under Congress' control.

In the last two years, Rep. Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, has made a point about the money he has returned -- $180,000 in 2010, $130,000 in 2009. Peters spent less than any of Michigan's 15 House members on salaries in 2009 and 2010. That's probably been a plus for him politically in a district considered an electoral toss-up.

It's been reflected in his office spending, too: He spent the least among Michigan's House members in 2010 -- $837,000 -- though that reflected a 7% increase in spending on salaries.

Peters -- like Ellis, with the taxpayers group -- has called for more transparency. On Peters' Web site is a heading "Office Disbursements." From that, constituents can wade through the congressman's spending, by quarter, though it's in the same byzantine quarterly accounting format of the Statement of Disbursements. Peters has proposed a bill that would have all House members do what he's doing.

Still, it's a sensitive topic.

Peters' office provided some background material on the congressman's salary spending. Then the Free Press asked if the congressman would talk specifically about his salary decisions.

He declined.

Pensions

Congressional pay has a direct relationship to pension benefits for staffers, who can get full benefits at age 62 after five years of service or at age 60 with 20 years of service.

An employee's annuity is set at 1.7% of the average of his or her highest basic pay over three consecutive years of creditable service multiplied by the employee's years of congressional service up to 20 plus 1% of the average of his or her highest basic pay over three years of any other federally eligible service (if he or she has any).

As an example, an employee with 20 years of service in an office who received $100,000 two of his or her last three years and $120,000 the last year would have an average pay of $106,667 (rather than $100,000 if his or her pay hadn't changed) and an annual annuity of $36,266.67 (instead of $34,000).

How the analysis was done

Free Press Washington correspondent Todd Spangler used data compiled by LegiStorm from quarterly Statement of Disbursements issued by the U.S. House of Representatives to compare salary spending for staffs in the members' Washington and district offices.

To make the comparison accurate, the analysis included only those voting and nonvoting members of the House who served all of both 2009 and 2010. Administrative, leadership and committee office spending was not included, though some committee pay is included in individual staffers' compensation.

The Free Press also examined overall salary spending -- again based on LegiStorm numbers for each quarter -- as well as pay for individual staffers working for Michigan's members of Congress in 2009 and 2010.

When looking at individual staffers, the analysis looked at pay from any and all sources, as well as any payments listed as "other compensation," such as overtime, which is sometimes paid at the discretion of the lawmaker and adhering to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.



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