Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) this week proposed legislation that would ban the practice of paying "death gratuities" to the survivors of deceased members of Congress.
Cooper's bill comes just weeks after Congress approved legislation paying a $174,000 gratuity to the widow of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). That payment rankled deficit hawks, as Lautenberg was worth something north of $50 million.
"The death gratuity became customary starting in 1918 before the birth of modern life insurance (1924), the creation of Social Security (1935), the establishment of civil service pensions (1942), and health benefits under Medicare (1965)," Cooper said. "A lot has changed since 1918, and the gratuity custom should have been abandoned a long time ago.
"Members should choose the death benefit they want by buying life insurance like regular citizens. No special treatment for Congress."
In September, Congress approved a $174,000 payment to Lautenberg's widow as part of a short-term spending bill. That payment was criticized by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which said the payment makes no sense at a time when other funding priorities are seeing cuts.
"The average member of Congress is much wealthier than the average citizen, and has sufficient resources to purchase life insurance and otherwise plan ahead," CREW wrote. "While there is reasonable debate about congressional compensation, a death gratuity is unseemly and unnecessary. When you look at what Congress should be prioritizing, it is outrageous."
But while the payments are seen as outrageous by some, those who support making a change will likely have to overcome a great deal of institutional inertia in Congress. Cooper's bill has no congressional cosponsors as of this week.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in 2012 that both the House and Senate typically offer an amount equal to the members' salary to the widow, widower or children of the deceased member. Senate rules say explicitly that these death gratuities are to be offered in the next appropriations bill.
These payments are treated as gifts for tax purposes, which means survivors don't have to pay any tax on it.
CRS added that when a sitting member dies, Congress can carry out several other observances, including a simple adjournment to mark the memory of the member. But Congress can also appoint a delegation to the funeral of these members, as it did recently when Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) passed.
In that case, the House went out of session to allow dozens of members to attend Young's funeral in Florida.
CRS said Congress has also decided to pay for the costs of a member's funeral from public funds. In those cases, the House or Senate Sergeant at Arms can be authorized to make arrangements for members of Congress to attend a funeral, and can "defray[s] the funeral expenses of the deceased Member and the expenses of duly appointed congressional participants."