President Obama returns $20,000 of his salary, but not Congress

Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year, not including their expense accounts. So where’s their shared sacrifice? Photo: The sequester requires some hard sacrifice of President Obama and Congress AP

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2013 — As thousands of federal employees are furloughed thanks to the sequester, President Obama announced that he is returning 5% or $20,000 of his $400,000 annual salary, retroactive to March. That’s when the $85 billion federal spending cuts erupted upon the economy.

The 5% the President is turning back to the Treasury represents the 5% cut in salaries many federal employees will suffer as their furloughs kick in. True, this moment in solidarity with federal workers is symbolic of “I feel your pain,” and probably does not represent a real hardship for President Obama, but often symbolic actions speak volumes.

The President is required by law to write his own check to the Treasury each month since his salary cannot be automatically adjusted. Come September the sequester will end or it could be extended, causing even more economic pain. However, President Obama has said he will make sure all $20,000 of this year’s salary is reimbursed to the Treasury by then. 

The $20,000 is a drop in the deficit bucket. It won’t buy a whole heck of a lot, probably not even a tire on a fighter jet or the salary of a border patrol guard, but shared sacrifice needs to start at the top with the President, the House, the Senate, and the Cabinet. 

A Symbolic Act, But A Revealing One

Lights are on, but Congress is still on vacation

The Constitution does not allow the President’s salary to be increased or reduced without Congressional approval, which is why President Obama is writing a check for the reimbursement.

Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also announced he will return 14 days worth of his $199,7000 salary in solidarity with his department.

Over the next 14 weeks, 700,000 Defense Dept. civilians will be required by the sequester to take off one day a week, unpaid. Hagel’s Deputy of Defense, Ash Carter, will turn back a portion of his salary as well.

At this point, the real cause of the sequester, both Houses of Congress have not offered to feel the pain and are still raking in their salaries even as the sequester slows the economy, shuts down airport control towers, slashes deeply into the Defense Budget, undermines border security, and reverberates in the states as the furloughs of federal workers hit state economies.

Members of Congress and the Senate are paid $174,000 a year, not including their expense accounts. The average worker in the U.S. earns just under $40,000 a year with no expense account. And guess who is still on vacation, not doing the people’s business? Not the average American worker.

When Will Congress Feel the Pinch?

The Senate took a voice vote on an amendment to the Democratic budget resolution to produce a bit of their own symbolism, allowing, but not requiring, Senators to return 20% of their own salaries to the U.S. Treasury. So far only Democratic Senators Alaska’s Mark Begich and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill have said they would stand shoulder to shoulder with the furloughed employees.

It seems the least Senators of both parties could do. Or as Sen. Begich said, “We need to be making responsible cuts wherever we can and there is no reason that members of Congress shouldn’t feel the pinch.”

A pinch of 5% would be $8,700 of a Congressional salary. Now multiply that by the 532 members of Congress and you get $4,628,400. Not chump change.

So far, no Republican on either side of the aisle has stepped forward. Perhaps they are waiting for a Constitutional nudge? Or is it ok to recklessly chop away at other people’s livelihoods in the name of the deficit but not ask the same of themselves? 

This is the same crowd that put the Iraq War on the U.S. credit card, never asking for shared sacrifice as we had done during past wars. This is the same crowd that believes cutting taxes on the top 1% in wartime translates into shared sacrifice.

Yes, returning a small part of the government salary as a member of Congress or President is a symbolic act, but it speaks volumes about values about whom we elected to serve.

To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.


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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

Contact Catherine Poe

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