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.
“It is inexcusable that American taxpayers are footing the bill,” Quayle said.
Griffin has sponsored legislation to end the pension program entirely for recently elected and future Members who have not yet qualified for the benefits.
But Members who entered office after 1987 and have served in Congress for at least five years can’t really leave FERS. Though they can decide upon reaching retirement to refuse the money, they still have to contribute 1.3 percent of their monthly salary into the system for as long as they serve.
In the meantime, all they can do is pledge not to take the money later on and submit a letter to the House Chief Administrative Officer stating their intentions. It’s a promise Members say they take seriously, but it’s not a binding one.
Lawmakers say they are frustrated, if not entirely surprised, about the rules preventing them from “leading by example.” After all, they reason, they came to Washington promising to usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility, and what better way to do so than on a personal level.
“This place wasn’t set up for folks who want to spend less money,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), who was among the GOP lawmakers who hoped Boehner would help them do their bit to pay down the debt and has since learned it wouldn’t be possible.
“There are a lot of institutional problems here. I often say it’s not a Democrat problem, it’s not a Republican problem, it’s a Washington problem,” Huelskamp said.
Those on the outside looking in said lawmakers shouldn’t feel the system is conspiring against them.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described how the federal pension system was originally designed, in part, to ensure fairness: By requiring every employee to accept a pension plan, employers could not pick and choose who received benefits — or be accused of picking and choosing.
“I would think the same thing as those Members. ‘Hey, I want that, I’m going to do that,’” Binder said. “But you run up against the reality of the many, many reasons why we construct these federal programs in the first place. They’re complicated, they have layers of bureaucracy and some of that is unintended consequence.”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer, was a little less forgiving.
“It’s just the nature of the rules,” Ornstein said. “It wasn’t ever ‘Aha! We can make sure nobody gives money back here in a timely fashion!’ … Most of these [Members’] gestures are nothing but symbolic, and that impediments are in the way of symbolic gestures just doesn’t bother me.”
The lawmakers in question, though, don’t have a problem with being symbols.
“Here’s the thing,” said Rep. Bobby Schilling (Ill.), who said he will refuse his pension. “We’re not going to get everything we want to change, but we will lead by example. … The key thing here is to continue to move forward, knowing you’re not going to get the whole pie, but a little piece at a time.”