The Republican Party knows it is perceived as out of touch with the needs of many Americans, so it seemed a no-brainer when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called on his colleagues to give up 20 percent of their salaries during sequestration.
After all, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires, so giving up $34,000 of their annual $174,000 salary to charity or back to the U.S. Treasury doesn’t seem like much of a hardship for a good chunk of the membership.
The budget bill amendment, submitted by Graham, was approved during a series of budget votes last month.
In a speech on the floor of the Senate, Graham said that 500,000 to 600,000 federal employees could be furloughed during sequestration and that senators should “feel what other people are feeling.”
According to “The Hill,” a publication that covers Congress, only Graham and Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) committed publicly to giving up some of their pay.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told “The Hill,” through an aide, that the senator has always donated his entire pay to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which aids local charities in Tennessee. A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said his boss already has cut his office budget by 15 percent to show he was serious about reducing federal spending.
Several other senators reportedly said they already gave generously to charity, but most did not respond to “The Hill” survey.
Congressional lawmakers’ pay is exempt by law from cuts under sequestration.
“We should lead by example,” Graham told “The Hill” before he introduced 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.”
Some senators and congressmen have previously announced voluntary cuts to their salaries or office budgets. Some simply haven’t been vocal about it. Others are opposed, for a number of reasons, and some simply refuse to discuss whether they will or won’t give back.
The reactions cut across party lines.
“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 a couple of months ago. “I think it’s necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said they would take pay cuts. President Obama announced Wednesday that he would take a 5 percent pay reduction, retroactive to March 1, when the across-the-board sequestration cuts began.
The president earns $400,000 a year; a 5 percent cut would amount to $20,000.
As a public relations move, Graham’s effort may be a bust. It remains to be seen, though, whether money returned to the Treasury would be enough to assist struggling Americans, even symbolically.
It’s one thing to donate money; it’s quite another to track it and see how the funds might be used. The public may well appreciate the willingness of their elected representatives to feel a little of their pain, but it is even more likely that they would appreciate having some of that money to ease it.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”