By T.W. Farnam
The Washington Post
U.S. lawmakers won't have their $174,000 salaries affected by across-the-board government spending cuts going into effect this month, but there's little clarity about how the bank accounts of senators and representatives were spared in the sequester.
The spending cuts hit every budget account, with a few exceptions that were written into the law that set up the federal budgeting process more than two decades ago, known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Compensation for the president is specifically exempted, but there is no mention of pay for members of Congress.
So how did lawmakers' pay escape the ax? Turns out that's a mystery with conflicting explanations that lead deep into a rabbit hole of federal budgeting arcana.
The Office of Management and Budget, the agency in charge of executive-branch money matters, hasn't said how it determined that lawmakers' salaries would continue to flow from the Treasury unscathed.
The issue of lawmakers' pay has been politically fraught since the founding of the nation. A constitutional amendment limiting Congress' ability to change its own pay was originally passed as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789 but was not ratified until 1992. The 27th Amendment prevents changes in congressional salaries from taking effect until an election has occurred.
Several news outlets, including CNN and Politico, have cited the 27th Amendment as the explanation for why lawmakers' pay has been unscathed. But the 2012 election took place after the sequester was signed into law and before it took effect.
An OMB official said the amendment is not the reason lawmaker salaries are intact, adding only that "they are not subject to sequester and never have been."
The agency's report on the sequester, required by the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012, lists lawmaker salaries as "exempt," but there's no reason provided — one of the only accounts listed in the report that are exempt without explanation.
Congressional salaries are funded through "a permanent appropriations account" established in 1981, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Gramm-Rudman says that any individual employee's salary that is set by law, such as standard federal pay scales, cannot be cut because of a sequester. But that provision does not explain why a whole class of people, such as members of Congress, couldn't see an across-the-board pay reduction. The OMB official said Gramm-Rudman simply doesn't apply to lawmakers' salaries at all because of the specific way they are funded.
Under Gramm-Rudman, officials are instructed to use furloughs instead of cutting public employees' pay, and then only as a last resort. But a furlough for lawmakers isn't in the offing — as much as that might be relished by the large share of Americans who say they hold Congress in ill regard. A congressional furlough could raise constitutional questions, which would be decided by a court only if a lawmaker sued the government for lack of pay.
Just the opposite has been happening in recent months with lawmakers of both parties rushing to propose bills cutting their own pay, despite the fact that such a pay reduction is clearly prohibited by the 27th Amendment.
Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bill Nelson of Florida have introduced one of the latest, which would reduce congressional salaries if federal employees are furloughed.
"This is an obvious step to hold Congress accountable for the job we need to get done," McCaskill said in a statement announcing the legislation.
A user on the liberal website MoveOn.org launched an online petition calling on lawmakers to cut their salaries for future sessions of Congress if they impose furloughs on workers. The site has collected 342,440 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Stan Collender, a leading expert on federal fiscal matters and formerly a longtime aide on the House and Senate budget committees, said the fate of lawmaker salaries in the sequester falls into a gray area and the fact they're left untouched is likely the result of "some sort of internal, below-the-radar decision."
"Something's not being said here," Collender said.