Flights home from Washington, D.C., a six-figure salary and the House gym: They're all perks of the congressional gig.
They're also political collateral in more than a dozen House races this cycle.
In political ad after political ad, challengers are taking aim at incumbents for accepting "perks" in a Congress mired in gridlock. Incumbents feel the heat, emphasizing their own commitment to ending taxpayer-funded congressional benefits.
The irony, of course, is that the winning challengers will have access to the same salary and benefits as soon as they're sworn into office in January. But operatives from both parties argue the message remains potent in a political environment where Congress is unpopular.
"Look, if you were any other person on the planet and you didn't do your job and you still got paid and all the perks that came with it — the only other place you can do that is Wall Street, and they're not so popular themselves," said Democratic consultant Travis Lowe, who has made ads attacking GOP incumbents and their perks this cycle. "So of course, it hits a chord."
Lowe is leveraging those lines of attack for Democrat Ann Callis, a former judge challenging Republican Rep. Rodney Davis in Illinois' 13th District.
Davis "shut down the government, but kept his own taxpayer-funded perks like a private gym and first class flights," a narrator says in a Callis spot made by Lowe. Another ad from Callis' campaign charges Davis with spending $40,000 at steak houses in Washington, D.C., but cutting funding for Medicare.
Members pay an annual fee to use the House gym, which is closed to the public. But the price tag is not public, and the Architect of the Capitol, which runs the gym, did not return a request for comment on the exact cost. But Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, told CQ Roll Call in October he pays about $260 annually to use it.
Airfare is included in Members’ Representational Allowance — a set budget for congressional offices to use for hiring staff or traveling home. If they go over budget, members pay the difference out of their own pockets .
Davis disputes Callis' claims in his own ads, running a spot touting his support for banning first-class airfare and ending taxpayer-funded health care for life for members.
The airfare bill, the "If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then so Should Congress" Act, was introduced on May 9, but has not yet gone to the House floor for a vote. It's co-sponsored by a number of vulnerable House Democrats including Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Julia Brownley of California and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona.
Democrats said last year perks would likely be a message in their communication with voters. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said the message resonates with independent voters.
"I think you have an almost historic animosity towards House Republicans for shutting down the federal government but continuing to protect their own benefits; voting to reduce Medicare, but continuing to protect subsidies to special interests," Israel said in an interview after votes on Capitol Hill in September, just before Congress recessed for election season. "That polling is very powerful and explains why you’re seeing a lot of these ads."
But Democratic incumbents are also under fire for their use of "perks" during their time in Congress.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is up with a handful of negative spots tying Democratic incumbents to their use of taxpayer-funded perks.
Next door to Davis' district, Rep. Bill Enyart, a Democrat on Roll Call's list of the 10 Most Vulnerable House Members , is being hit in an NRCC ad with vague wording that says Enyart, "backed a plan that gives congressmen taxpayer funded perks and special benefits, but Illinois families got higher premiums and layoffs."
The NRCC also slammed Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., in another ad, charging him with leasing two cars on the taxpayer's dime, and using taxpayer funds to fly around his northeastern Minnesota district. Peterson told the MinnPost.com the cars are for his staff, who were logging thousands of miles doing constituent work in the district, and said the planes help him get around his sprawling Minnesota district more easily.
Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., also comes under fire in an NRCC spot that says he used the surplus from his congressional office budget after he was ousted from Congress in 2010 to give bonuses to his staff. It's a common practice by ousted members of Congress, who, in the lame-duck sessions, are often understaffed as staffers start to find new employment.
But for the general public, often unaware of how Washington works, the attacks are potent.
"You see it 'cause it works," NRCC Chairman Greg Walden said of the messaging on perks at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor this month in Washington, D.C.
It's why members continue to tout their support in their own ads for the "No Budget, No Pay" legislation that would delay congressional pay until both chambers passed a budget.
For example, Rep. Scott Peters, a freshman Democrat facing a tough re-election battle in California, used the line in his first ad of the general-election contest, saying he voted for the "No Budget, No Pay" legislation that passed through both the House and the Senate and was signed by President Barack Obama in February .
"He's got a budget. So does she. Even they do," Peters says as images of regular folks work at their kitchen tables. "Washington should, too."
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