Americans are cutting back to make it through the recession, but members of Congress aren’t.
American families and businesses alike have been tightening their belts during hard times. They’ve been doing more with less, or simply doing without.
Meanwhile, in the Wonderland that is Washington, D.C., members of Congress have been letting their belts out. As South Florida’s Sun Sentinel recently reported, federal lawmakers voted themselves a 5 percent increase in their own budgets last year. They spent those taxpayer dollars for staff salaries — sometimes in six figures — office expenses and perks. In Florida’s delegation, the perks included chauffeured car trips, pricey auto leases and an office aquarium.
This hike in congressional budgets not only came at a time when ordinary Americans were hurting. It happened in a year when the federal government was running a record deficit, and inflation had leveled off.
Florida’s two U.S. senators have annual budgets for office expenses of more than $4 million each, while the state’s 25 House members each get about $1.5 million. When their budgets are combined with their Senate and House colleagues’, the total of less than $2 billion almost gets lost amid this year’s $3.6 trillion federal budget and $1.6 trillion projected deficit. Cutting congressional office expenses won’t balance the budget.
But when lawmakers refuse to hold themselves back in tough times, it sends a message to struggling Americans: Sacrificing is for suckers.
Consider these office expenses last year from Florida House members:
Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, who represents a district where the per capita income is only two-thirds of the U.S. average, spent almost $8,000 last year for herself and her staff to ride in chauffeured cars or SUVs.
Democrat Ron Klein of Boca Raton, a self-described deficit hawk, increased his office spending by $30,000.
Democrat Alcee Hastings of Miramar spent the most on staff. He paid two of them — one his longtime girlfriend — about $160,000 each. Both fell just below the $168,000 limit for congressional staff salaries.
Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami leased a Honda Odyssey minivan for $803 a month.
Republican Tom Rooney of Tequesta spent almost $2,500 on an aquarium in his office. He also spent $628 on bottled water.
Among Florida’s House members, the top 10 office spenders last year were split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The group included four members whose districts cover parts of Central Florida: Republicans Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville and Cliff Stearns of Ocala, and Democrats Alan Grayson of Orlando and Ms. Brown of Jacksonville.
Republican Adam Putnam of Bartow was the most frugal member of Central Florida’s delegation. His office spent just 76 percent of its budget allotment.
A year ago House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio called for a freeze on federal spending. He argued that it was time for Washington, D.C. to “lead by example.” Some example. Mr. Boehner’s office reportedly spent almost $25,000 on catering in last year’s third quarter. During the same period, the office of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California spent almost $3,000 on flowers.
Some combination of tax increases and spending cuts looms ahead for Americans if the deficit is to be brought under control. Members of Congress will have no moral authority to ask those sacrifices from Americans if they don’t starting making more of their own.
See what your rep is up to: Legistorm has staff salaries, earmarks, financial disclosures, foreign gifts, trips (and who paid for them) and a rating on all members of Congress: