Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The US Capitol looms in the background of a sign on the National Mall reminding visitors of the closures to all national parks due to the federal government shutdown in Washington October 3, 2013.

As government shutdown drags on, some in Congress see fit to donate their pay

With federal workers furloughed, a growing number of lawmakers say they'll forgo or donate their pay. Such gestures, however, are not expected to tame public anger at Congress over the government shutdown.

As long as the government is shut down, US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire will be donating her salary to the New Hampshire Food Bank – about $477, or 953 meals, each day.

She tweeted her intentions Wednesday, joining a growing list of members of Congress who say they will donate or at least suspend their pay in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers.

Such gestures can’t hurt, political experts say, but they won’t go very far in taming public anger, and the hunger for a meeting of the minds on Capitol Hill to get the government up and running again.

“It’s purely symbolic, but in a country that’s frustrated with Congress and … still living with a struggling economy, there’s something satisfying with hearing a legislator say that if the government is shut down, you’re not going to take money either,” says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton. Ultimately, however, “it’s the shutdown that matters, not the salary, and I think people are smart and cognizant of what’s wrong in Washington.”

With the shutdown in its third day, a flurry of Facebook pages, tweets, and statements in local media reports indicate many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be donating salaries to organizations ranging from the Wounded Warrior Project to the March of Dimes.

“I appreciate the symbolism of a Congressperson not accepting wages when other federal employees are not getting paid,” says Mike Ostrowski, president and CEO of Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, to which Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D) of New Hampshire plans to donate at least a portion of her salary.

Funding for the group’s services for runaway and homeless youths comes from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families, and Mr. Ostrowski says he’s not able to reach people in Washington to know how those funds will be affected.

“Any donation we got, we’d certainly endeavor to keep these going, and we would certainly not dump kids out of residences,” he says, “but we would take a significant hit to our balance sheet if we found out there is no funding during the shutdown.”

New Hampshire’s other members of Congress, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), have also said they’ll donate charity during the shutdown.

The standard pay scale for members of Congress is currently $174,000, with those in leadership positions getting upward of $190,000. The federal workers on furlough are paid through appropriations from Congress, but Congress’s own pay is unaffected by the shutdown. Congress can vote to change its own pay only for future sessions, according to the 27th Amendment of the Constitution, says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the congressional watchdog group Public Citizen. That’s intended to prevent them from giving themselves a raise during a current session.

Members of Congress can give their pay back to the Treasury Department, which Rep. Jared Polis (D) of Colorado has been doing this year to help pay down the debt, the Washington Post reports. Many have said they’ll hold their pay in escrow during the shutdown, and will donate it if other government employees aren’t compensated for their days away from work.

“There’s no effective way of monitoring” if they follow through on their pledges, Mr. Holman says.  Only if Congress members release their tax forms will people be able to verify charitable donations. “We have every reason to be very suspicious of the sincerity of these statements,” he says, since most of them have occurred only after the media started highlighting the fact that their pay was continuing unaffected by the shutdown.

But Professor Zelizer says he believes legislators would follow through, assuming that if they don’t, someone could easily expose it.

As of early Thursday afternoon, a list on the Washington Post website included 120 lawmakers (60 Republicans and 60 Democrats) who were planning to forgo or donate their salaries.

A spokesman told the Post that House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio would forgo his salary, while a spokesman for Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said he’s putting his earnings in an escrow account.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina announced his intention to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project in a brief YouTube video.

One public comment below the video sums up a view many Americans perhaps share: “I appreciate the thought, but I'd much rather spend the time and effort to pass a budget and create a charity that directly supports the government employees affected by the loss of pay.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who pushed hard for tying government funding to defunding the Affordable Care Act, said last Friday that he would not forgo his salary, but on Monday announced in a statement that it would go to charity, the Associated Press reports.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio has lived through a shutdown before, as a member of the House in 1995. He donated his salary to charities then, pledged to so again in 2011 if there were another government shutdown, and said in a statement he will do so this time around, the Washington Post reports.

Not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) of Florida, in an interview on MSNBC Thursday morning, said she’d continue to take her salary and work to get the government to reopen.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D) of Wisconsin said in a statement e-mailed to the Monitor late Thursday morning, “I am speaking, voting, and working diligently to help my constituents through the shutdown and speak on their behalf in Washington to reopen the government. I will not be donating or forgoing my salary.”

Some members of Congress may be very much like constituents who live paycheck to paycheck. Representative Wasserman Schultz and Representative Moore are both among 17 US lawmakers listed by Roll Call as having significant debt or no assets.

For the charities on the receiving end of salary donations, every little bit helps.

“Donations from anyone, particularly a leader, are very important, especially as we move into the holiday season,” says Bruce Wilson, director of operations at the New Hampshire Food Bank. He says Senator Shaheen’s donations should be available within 10 days, and they’ll help offset the loss of 600,000 pounds of food that used to be donated by 12 grocery stores that recently shut down.

Demand for food bank assistance has grown 6 percent since this time last year, Mr. Wilson says.

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