Politicians living on the brink

It takes a lot more than $165,200 a year to keep up appearances.

Something could be said about national politicians and money: Most of them struggle with bills just like most of us. Despite the latest headlines about bribery scandals on Capitol Hill, the vast majority of politicians are not corrupt, and most are not wealthy either.

We don't usually hear that side of the story, however. Part of the reason is that congressmen make $165,200 a year, triple the national median income for a family of three. Who, making that much money, wants to go on record complaining about financial stress, especially when they rely on public votes for their jobs?

I'm not running for office, though, so I don't mind speaking up about what the politicians can't say themselves.

To start with, some are independently wealthy, but certainly not all. About half of the senators are millionaires, but there are far fewer in the House of Representatives. For example, 1 in 10 members of the House carried credit card balances of at least $10,000, as noted in the 2003 financial disclosures, according to a survey last year by the newspaper The Hill.

So let's not confuse fame and fortune. Just because politicians are powerful, and we see them on TV, and they are in contact with famous and wealthy people does not mean they can afford a lavish lifestyle.

And a salary of $165,200 can get chipped away by financial pressures that most Americans do not have. Even politicians themselves don't understand this before they start work, because nobody talks about it. Contrary to myths circulating on the Internet, congressional salaries are taxed, the members pay into Social Security and retirement plans, and they are not given special benefit packages.

Running for office is time-consuming and extremely expensive. Those who can't self-finance a campaign must beg and borrow. It's not unusual for a candidate to quit his or her job to hit the campaign trail, which leaves a family supported by savings or a spouse's income, commonly supplemented by credit cards, home equity borrowing, and personal loans. And that's before they're elected, if they're elected.

It doesn't end there. Winning a seat on Capitol Hill means you have to set up residence in Washington - and for most politicians that means a second residence, doubling housing expenses. There's no housing allowance for members of Congress - and they can't write off living in Washington as a business expense. Many end up bunking together in apartments or boarding houses. Some have no place to call home. They sleep on couches in their offices, and shower at the gym. "It was very spooky," said former Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut. "But it's one way to save dough."

When a family lives in the home district, there's no allowance for the spouse or children to visit Washington. If relocating to the capital, a spouse might end up job searching in a city where employers are often reluctant to hire workers seen as transient.

As a member of Congress, you're a semicelebrity, and there's social pressure for you and your spouse to look and act the part. You're invited out a lot; you're talked about; you're photographed. Keeping up appearances is expensive. Lobbyists used to wine and dine members, but now, members aren't allowed to accept a meal or gift worth more than $50.

Sometimes members are even expected to pick up the entire check at a restaurant for dining partners who assume the legislators are on an expense account. They're not.

Even taking a constituent to lunch at the members' dining room has to be paid for out of pocket. Buying pizza for the staff? Out of pocket. The dozens or even hundreds of requests for charitable donations? Out of pocket. It all adds up. Former Rep. Jack Buechner (R) of Missouri had this to say about charitable giving: "Either you feel blackmailed to give money you don't want to give, or you're viewed as a cheapskate and an ingrate. Either way, you pay."

It's embarrassing enough for those of us in the general public to admit we can't afford to go to a restaurant or on a trip that our friends or co-workers indulge in. Imagine what it must feel like to explain financial strain when you're a prominent politician and when your relatively large salary is public information. So the politicians struggling behind the scenes keep quiet about it and keep up appearances in the public eye - just like the rest of us.

Shira Boss is the author of "Green with Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses Is Keeping Us in Debt."

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