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Congress can’t cut own pay, but staffs are being trimmed

The Constitution bars it from changing its current salary, so congressional staffs are being cut back instead.

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
Federal lawmakers must pare thousands of dollars from their office budgets in the next few months because of the sequester.
But none of that money will come out of their paychecks.
Their annual earnings of $174,000 are beyond the reach of the sequester because the U.S. Constitution bars lawmakers from manipulating their salaries up or down in the midst of a two-year session.
Congress did pass and President Barack Obama signed a law blocking cost-of-living increases for federal lawmakers that were set to take effect in January. Congress has taken similar action each year since 2009.
While their pay isn't part of the $85 billion in federal spending cuts dictated by the sequester, their office operations will take a hit.
House members are under orders to shave 8.2 percent of their annual office allowance before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The House Committee on Administration sets the allowances using a formula that takes account the location and size of a district and the prevailing costs of renting space.
For U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the cut adds up to $114,000. He's planning to send fewer pieces of paid mail, curb travel by staff members and conduct fewer telephone town halls with residents of his 2nd Congressional District.
"Congressman Larsen has made it clear that we will not let sequester stop our office from serving our constituents," spokesman Bryan Thomas said. "He is far more concerned about the sequester cutting 10,000 meals for seniors in Snohomish County and pulling dollars out of Everett schools."
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., must slice $134,428 from his allotment while U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., must ax $112,516 from her office budget.
"We've tried to budget carefully for this possibility," said Casey Bowman, spokesman for Herrera Beutler. "Layoffs and furloughs are not part of our plans. We'll continue to make sure any staff travel is essential, and seek to reduce costs in other areas where possible. We don't expect any change in constituent services."
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., will receive roughly $114,000 less in her first-year budget.
DelBene anticipated there might be cuts so she's hired staff at lower salaries and made fewer commitments for spending in the next six months, said her spokesman, Viet Shelton.
Senators must trim 5 percent this fiscal year. The figure is different because the Senate and House set separate rules on how cuts will be divided among rank-and-file members and the operations of each chamber.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, is looking to slice $160,000 in spending.
Everything, from staff salaries to office expenses, is in line for reduction, according to the senator's spokesman Jared Leopold.
A spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., did not have an exact amount to be slashed.
"The cuts are pretty significant," said Murray spokesman Sean Coit. "Certainly the office is careful to spend resources efficiently and in a cost-effective way, and the senator and our office have been prepared for the possibility of budget cuts."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;
Why no pay cut?
Why can't salaries of federal lawmakers be trimmed as part of the sequestration?
The 27th Amendment of the Constitution won't allow it.
"No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."
This means they can reduce their salaries but the reduction wouldn't kick in until after the 2014 general election.
Story tags » HouseSenateWages & Pensions

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