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story.lead_photo.caption Shea Wilson

Can I get a round of applause for U.S. Reps. Jared Golden, D-Maine, Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, and Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., for introducing the Solidarity in Salary Act of 2019? The three congressmen introduced the bill in the House Tuesday, which would withhold pay of the president, vice president and members of Congress during a shutdown. The money would be placed in escrow and not released until the government reopens.

Suggestions of this concept have been floating around for weeks on social media. And this bill comes just days after the country’s longest ever shutdown — 35 days — ended. On Jan. 25, President Donald Trump agreed to reopen government for three weeks so a border security deal can be reached. About 800,000 federal workers were denied pay during that time but will receive backpay. Hundreds of federal contract workers won’t be so lucky. They work for third parties, which may not compensate janitors, security guards and other workers during the shutdown.

President Trump makes $400,000 a year, which he donates to different charities. Vice President Mike Pence has an annual salary of $230,700. They also have housing, transportation and all sorts of other perks.

The salary for most senators and representatives is $174,000. The speaker of the House receives a salary of $223,500. The president pro tempore of the Senate and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate receive $193,400. House members also receive Member Service Allowances, while senators receive allowances from the Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account.

Members of Congress are given these allowances to cover personal expenses related to carrying out their duties. According to the Congressional Research Service report, Congressional Salaries and Allowances, the allowances are provided to cover “official office expenses, including staff, mail, travel between a member’s district or state and Washington, DC, and other goods and services.”

The House sets the funding levels for the MRA annually as part of the federal budget process. For example, according to the CRS report, the fiscal year 2017 legislative branch appropriations bill passed by the House set MRA funding at $562.6 million. In 2016, each member’s MRAs range from $1,207,510 to $1,383,709, with an average of $1,268,520.

Each member is allowed to use their MRA to employ up to 18 full-time, permanent employees, which is where the bulk of the MRA goes. In 2016, for example, the office personnel allowance for each member was $944,671.

In the Senate, the 2017 appropriations bill showed a range of $3,043,454 to $4,815,203. The average allowance was $3,306,570.

And then there is the real travel. In a 2017 article, USA Today cited the Treasury Department in reporting that congressional travel cost nearly $20 million in 2016, the highest figure ever recorded, based on data provided by the State Department, which arranges official foreign travel for lawmakers.

And let’s not forget President Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Florida. CBS News reported in 2017 that the president spent 11 of his first 33 days in office at Mar-a-Lago and the travel had an estimated price tag of $10 million. He and the First Lady have gone there multiple times since and made visits to other Trump properties.

Air Force One accounts for a big chunk of the presidential travel budget, costing more than $180,000 per hour to operate, CBS News reported. That means the roughly four-hour roundtrip flight to his estate costs more than $700,000.

President Trump often attacked his predecessor over his travel. He once tweeted: “President @barackobama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars—-Unbelievable!”

According to CBS News, President Obama spent time in South Florida and it cost taxpayers $3.6 million. The Pentagon spent about $2.8 million for Air Force One plus support aircraft and military personnel. The Secret Service and the Coast Guard added nearly $800,000.

During his eight years in office, Mr. Obama racked up about $97 million in travel costs, CBS reported, noting that Mr. Trump was on pace to rival that amount by the end of his first year. The president and some others remained in Washington during the shutdown, so travel during that period may be a non-issue for some. The real and on-going issue is the travel spending by leaders of both parties, in general. We saw recent headlines about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s grounded trip and rehashing of past travel excesses that involved family members and lavish food and drink.

So that bipartisan bill is a start. To have a real impact on these big spenders we will need a bill that targets allowances and travel, as well — and scrutinize what they are doing during non-shutdown times. I’m betting that we could easily bolster border security with dollars from those allowance and travel accounts.

Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at melsheawilson@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.

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