Holiday bonus season came and went for Congressional staffers with little merriment: In the last quarter of 2011, bonuses for House aides were at a 10-year low.
Those working for Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, however, might have been pleasantly surprised.
LegiStorm, a website that publishes Congressional salary information, has found that the average House aide earned 11.2 percent more in the final quarter of 2011 than throughout the rest of the year.
But that's half the bump staffers were seeing in their paychecks at the end of 2010.
Some lawmakers were more generous than others. Eleven-term lawmaker Moran, for instance, more than doubled his staff's average salary over the first three quarters of the year.
"It's no secret Congressional staffers work long hours and are grossly underpaid — in one of the highest cost areas in the country," Moran spokeswoman Anne Hughes said. "If he has surplus funds at the end of the year, the Congressman tries to reward staff for their hard work by giving bonuses."
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) gave out bonuses that were 60 percent above the average salary for each of the other three quarters of the year.
"When building a budget at the beginning of each year, I plan for unexpected costs. If there is money left over, I provide salary adjustments for my staff," Thompson said in a statement.
Seven other lawmakers gave bonuses of more than 50 percent of the average salary, but most Members handed out less generous increases.
All this comes as Members work with less money. In 2011, House Members voted to decrease their office expense and staff salary budgets by 5 percent, and earlier this year they agreed to a 6.4 percent cut for the remainder of 2012.
These choices were made so Members could "lead by example" in the broader campaign to cut spending.
But that's not the only reason, according to LegiStorm founder Jock Friedly.
"It's also an awkward political time for Members of Congress, as approval ratings are at a historic low and people are feeling really pinched in their pocketbooks. ... Members probably have concerns about looking excessive [in giving large bonuses]," he said.
Since LegiStorm began tracking fourth-quarter paychecks in 2002, Republicans and Democrats, respectively, gave out their highest bonuses in 2006 and 2010 — the years they were getting ready to cede control of the House to the other party. Many Members were leaving office and, as it were, "the political pressure was off."
Lawmakers who gave the biggest bonuses at the end of 2011 were quick to point out that it shouldn't be interpreted as frivolity.
"We were able to be generous because we were extremely tight with our budget this year," said Randy Swanson, chief of staff to freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who gave out the second-highest bonuses at 65 percent of the average salary. "And we paid people from the start less than we would have liked to." Hughes pointed out that Moran has returned more than $1 million in unused office money to the Treasury since being elected.
Maybe bonuses shouldn't reflect badly on lawmakers, Congressional Management Foundation President Brad Fitch said.
"Most private-sector businesses have merit-based incentives to encourage retention," Fitch said. "We hope Congress tries to emulate that."