More Checks, Cab Rides on Tap
House employees are a little closer to getting paid twice a month.
The House Administration Committee unanimously approved legislation Wednesday giving the panel authority to establish the day when House staffers receive their paychecks.
The panel also approved several other bills affecting life on Capitol Hill, including one to let staffers get reimbursed for late-night cab rides home and a bill allowing military personnel in the Defense Department’s Congressional liaison office to use the House fitness center.
But the pay bill is likely to have the widest impact on Capitol Hill.
The pay system change isn’t happening immediately, as the legislation only gives House Administration the authority to determine when staffers are paid and when such a change will go into effect.
But should the panel eventually move to pay staffers twice a month, it will mark a major change in the administration of the chamber, since staffers have been paid once a month for decades.
And the consequences of such a change concerns some Members.
“Many employees pay their mortgages, utility bills and other financial obligations in concert with the month pay schedule,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the panel’s ranking member. “To change a system that has been in place for such an extended period of time will have a pervasive impact.”
One of Ehlers’ chief concerns is that changing the system would likely involve the implementation of a pay lag — meaning a pay period would end about a week before an employee actually gets paid.
Such a lag is expected to save the House money, as payroll transactions would be submitted on a more consistent schedule, potentially reducing the number of overpayments. But the initial creation of the lag — something the chamber currently does not have — could be problematic for some staffers, according to an Ehlers spokeswoman.
If the lag were to be implemented at the start of the month, for example, staffers would get their first check two weeks later. But they would get only one week’s worth of money — with the other week used to create the lag.
But whether a lag is even required, and if so, how long it will be, is up to the committee.
Either way, supporters say Members should move to make the pay change, as the pay lag and other concerns are minimal and can be worked though.
The benefits would be enormous, supporters argue. Among them is Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who is in charge of getting employees their paychecks and has advocated for the change since taking office last year.
About 54 percent of House employees in 2007 were younger than 35; 40 percent are under 30, according to CAO statistics. Those staffers often earn the least of anybody on Capitol Hill — CAO statistics show about 30 percent of House employees make less than $40,000 annually.
“Once a month pay can be very difficult for staffers budgeting on a tight paycheck,” House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said.
Beard understands Member concerns and said his staff already is studying how to help House employees transition to a new system should one be approved, he said. CAO officials are meeting with consultants Watson Wyatt today to discuss how a pay change would be implemented, Beard added.
“Our objective is to make this transition as smooth as possible,” Beard said. “That’s going to include a lot of public outreach.”
Meeting with House staffers themselves is important, Beard noted.
“Everybody has a different set of circumstances, and they’ll have to make some modest adjustments,” Beard said.
According to a January 2008 report of the House Inspector General, implementing a pay system change would cost $744,000 to $1,116,000 and take 12-15 months.
Another Congressional campus issue tackled by the committee on Wednesday was cab-ride compensation.
Ehlers raised concern over the creation of the Alternative Ride Home program, which would let staffers who get stuck working on Capitol Hill after the Metro closes or their carpool buddies head home take a cab instead.
Under the proposal, staffers who take a taxi would be required to fill out a form — expected to be available on the House Intranet — to get reimbursed. It is a system designed to make sure staffers get home safely while keeping their wallets intact, Brady said.
“The employing authority will sign off on the validity of the expense in the course of approving the voucher,” Brady said.
But Ehlers warned that the program is “vulnerable to the possibility of abuse.”
“We have seen before that the ill intent of a few can ruin a benefit for many,” he said.
One point of debate is whether the program should apply when Congress is out of session. Ehlers argued that staffers rarely have to stay late during recess, while Brady said staffers work hard even when Members aren’t around.
“Their need for safety is not just a function of when the House is in session,” Brady said.
Despite the debate, Members passed the bill unanimously. One reason: Brady has directed the House Inspector General to review the program after six months and issue any recommendations needed to improve it.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) to allow Members to designate a person to disperse the money in their campaign accounts in the event of their death also passed the committee on Wednesday. Under current law, campaign treasurers take control of the accounts in the event of a Member’s death, which can be problematic since many treasurers are outside operatives and have little knowledge of Members’ wishes.
The panel also voted to appoint Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) chairman of the Subcommittee on Capitol Security. Brady had been chairman of the panel, which has yet to hold a hearing since being established at the start of the 110th Congress.