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GOP Freshmen Find Cash Is Tough to Give Back

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Jeff Landry (center) and other GOP freshmen found it’s easier said than done when attempting to return unused office budget money.

The House Republican class of 2010 came to Congress determined to set an example of thrift.

What these Members have found has, in a way, confirmed their worst fears about the way Washington works: It’s not easy to get the government to stop giving you money — or to give money back the way you want to.

In the 13 months since they entered office, these Members have found themselves running up against institutional barriers that have kept them from making gestures as seemingly simple as returning cash from their office budgets to the Treasury Department or opting out of the Congressional retirement system.

“It’s been very frustrating. You start to recognize that there’ve been particular walls built, basically programmed, to make it difficult for you to institute change,” Rep. Jeff Landry (La.) said.

Two weeks ago, eight House Republican freshmen, with Landry as their leader, gathered outside the Capitol to announce that they’d collectively saved more than $1.4 million from their Members’ Representational Allowances — spending accounts that pay for office expenses and staff salaries.

It’s not unusual for lawmakers to have leftover money from their MRAs, which is typically just returned from whence it came, the Treasury.

But the eight Republicans called on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to make sure their money immediately went toward paying down the national debt.

The problem is: Boehner can’t do that.

There are two ways for Members to give away their official money for debt or deficit reduction purposes.

One is for Members to earmark portions of their salaries each month for “reduction of the public debt.”

The other is for Members, at the end of a fiscal year, to designate the unspent portion of their MRAs to go back to the Treasury Department “to be used for deficit reduction or to reduce the federal debt.” For two succeeding fiscal years, the money is in a holding pattern, though, to ensure that all of the Members’ bills are settled and any outstanding contracts are paid.

It came as a surprise to many of the freshmen that there was no way around those rules.

“We all thought, I think, ‘Maybe there is something the Speaker can do, some pot of money where that money could be put directly,’” Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.) said.

Walsh is also among the handful of freshmen who have expressed a desire  to opt out of the Federal Employees Retirement System — a program derided by many GOP newcomers as excessively generous given the state of federal finances.

Some, including Reps. Ben Quayle (Ariz.) and Tim Griffin (Ark.),  boast that they have already “opted out” of the system.

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