By Russell Berman - 04/03/13 09:00 AM EDT
Only a few senators are planning to forfeit a portion of their salaries to charity or the U.S. Treasury while sequestration is in effect, according to a survey conducted by The Hill.
The Senate last month passed a measure urging members of the upper chamber to forgo 20 percent of their salary during sequestration. Most senators, however, are keeping quiet on whether they will follow through.
In his floor speech, Graham noted that about 500,000 to 600,000 federal employees will be furloughed because of sequestration and that senators should “feel what other people are feeling.”
Yet in a survey of Senate offices by The Hill, only Graham and Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have indicated they would give up some of their take-home pay.
In a recent press release, Begich — who is up for reelection in 2014 — said he will be voluntarily returning a portion of his salary to the Treasury this year.
Several other senators said they already donate generously to charity, while the majority of offices gave no response at all.
Senators make $174,000 annually. To fully comply with the Graham measure for a complete calendar year, members would return $34,000 to charity or the Treasury. To most people, that’s a lot of money; but for some members, that is chump change. About half of the lawmakers in Congress are millionaires.
Budget votes are nonbinding, and the fiscal blueprint passed by the Democratic-led Senate will not become law, but member salaries have drawn added attention during a time of belt-tightening across Washington.
While congressional offices are subject to the across-the-board spending reductions as part of sequestration, lawmaker salaries are exempt.
The very passage of the budget by a slim majority on March 23 ensured that senators would continue receiving their salaries. Congress enacted a provision earlier this year stipulating that if either the House or Senate failed to pass a budget resolution, the pay of its members would be withheld.
“We should lead by example,” Graham told The Hill before introducing his amendment. “Every member of Congress should give up 20 percent of their pay to the charity of their choice or wherever they want to spend the money, just get it out of their hands, their account, because that’s what they’re doing to the private sector.”
Graham mentioned the example of Ashton Carter, the deputy Defense secretary who told a Senate committee in February that he would voluntarily forgo 20 percent of his salary if his employees were subject to furloughs because of sequestration.
The Pentagon on Tuesday announced Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will also follow suit by writing a check to the Treasury.
Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said the senator donated 20 percent of his salary and that he had spoken about the Wounded Warriors or the American Cancer Society charities as likely to receive his contribution. Bishop declined to comment on what other senators are choosing to do.
Other senators, including McCaskill, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), have addressed or introduced proposals calling for congressional salaries to be subject to sequestration. But some top lawmakers have criticized the repeated attempts to target member salaries.
“I don’t think we should do it; I think we should respect the work we do,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters in February. “I think it’s necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”
In The Hill survey, spokesmen for Rockefeller and Lee said they planned to donate a portion of their salaries, while aides to Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Angus King (I-Maine) said their bosses already contribute some of their income to charity.
“I asked Sen. Grassley and he said that he and Mrs. Grassley already ‘more than tithe’ to their church and charities, so this amendment won’t affect their giving,” Grassley spokeswoman Jill Gerber said.
An aide to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he has never accepted a Senate salary and instead gives his pay to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which distributes it to local charities. Corker is worth at least $19.6 million, according to financial reports from 2011.
A Sessions spokesman noted that as the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, he had voluntarily cut his committee office budget by 15 percent to demonstrate his commitment to reduced federal spending. Other members of both the House and Senate have also previously announced voluntary cuts to their office budgets or that they have returned part of their salaries to the Treasury.
Updated at 10:10 a.m.: Sen. McCaskill's office said she has also committed to giving a portion of her salary to charity or to the Treasury.
— Taylor Seale, Zach DeRitis, Noura Alfadl-Andreasson, Amrita Khalid and Alex Lazar contributed.