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2018 Worth Bingham Prize winners David McSwane, left, and Andrew Chavez, right, with Clara Bingham Lisa Abitbol

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

Expense Facts Compared To Iceberg — Most Hidden

Base-Pay Rule Veils Staff Sums


Six-part series

A Congressman’s income can mount into high brackets. Worth Bingham of The Courier-Journal and Times Washington Bureau examines this phase in this second of six articles.

Part 1: Our Costly Congress

Part 3: All Is Not Passing Of Laws

Part 4: Free-Mail Privilege Proves A Boon To Incumbents

Part 5: New Building May Top Pentagon Cost

Part 6: Financial Reports Hide Actual Spending

Washington, July 22. — The cost of maintaining an individual senator or representative is one of the the best kept secrets in Washington. There are a lot of facts available, but they are like icebergs. They don’t tell what’s beneath the surface.

A lawmaker’s own income is a case in point. On the face of it, he earns $22,500 a year. But that’s not all of it. If you count the compensation a congressman or a senator gets in the form of expense allowances, the total comes to well over $40,000 a year.

This $40,000-plus does not include an indeterminate amount for clerk hire — the salaries a legislator pays his staff, or the money he saves by using the numerous subsidized activities on Capitol Hill, or the added income some receive by putting relatives on their payrolls.

Gets Tax Deduction

Besides his $22,500 salary, a congressman receives a $3,000 annual income-tax deduction for living expenses in Washington. In addition, for renting office space in his home state he receives $1,200 a year, plus $600 for home-office expenses.

He gets a yearly $1,800 “stationery allowance,” which he can use to buy letterheads, or not spend at all and merely stick in his bank account.

He gets one round trip from home to Washington at the rate at 20 cents a mile. For a lawmaker from Hawaii, this amounts to $2,000, four times the cost of a round-trip air fare. Senators get two additional round trips at actual cost.

A senator is allowed 1,440 free long­ distance telephone calls a year from Washington, an additional $1,800 worth of calls originating and terminating outside the capital, plus a telegram allowance based on the size of his state and its proximity to Washington.

Lumped Together

The only way of finding out what this telegram allowance amounts to is to ask a senator to get the information from the sergeant at arms. Senator John Williams (R., Del.) had a telegram allowance of

$3,944 for 1961, undoubtedly the minimum since Delaware is the second smallest state in the Union and one of the closest to Washington.

A House member’s telephone and telegraph allowance is lumped together under a curious “unit” system. He gets 40,000 “units” a year. One minute of a long-distance phone call is five units. A little mathematics shows that a congressman gets 8,000 free telephone minutes a year. For a Kentuckian, that would be worth about $4,000, based on an average of 50 cents a minute.

Senators receive $500 a year for airmail and special-delivery stamps, House members $400 a year.

Most Mail Is Free

Members send out most of their mail free under the franking privilege. A House member gets 300,000 franked envelopes a year for this purpose, a senator 540,000. In practice, there is an almost unlimited supply of these free mailings, since members can return to the Joint Committee on Printing and request more. Such requests are rarely denied.

Congress’ franking privilege cost the taxpayers $3,986,000 during fiscal 1961, when 88,800,000 pieces of free mail were handled. That worked out to $7,400 per legislator.

And the cost of franked mail is expected to rise steeply if congressmen start making extensive use of the house­ sponsored ”junk-mail” provision which was enacted into law last year.

Can Park Free

There is no way of estimating how much a legislator saves (and thus adds to his income) by using the subsidized facilities at his disposal on Capitol Hill.

In the course of a day, he can park his car free, or just leave it in a no-parking zone, since a district ordinance prevents tagging illegally parked cars if they are owned by congressmen. He can sit down to a cut rate breakfast in one of the money-losing Capitol restaurants.

The Houses restaurants run at an annual loss of $60,000. House Clerk Ralph Roberts sees no reason to raise prices as long as the 11 Senate restaurants go on losing money at the rate of $85,000 a year.

Gets Free Haircut

”They don’t care what they do with the money over there,” he said grumpily.

A senator can stroll into a Capitol barbershop and get his hair cut free. A House member has to pay 75 cents. The going rate in Washington is $1.75.

Medical care on Capitol Hill is both socialized and subsidized. If a legislator is feeling out of sorts, he need only tum himself over to one of three doctors in the office of the attending physician for a free medical checkup and free drugs. If a lawmaker is really sick he can get free medical care at Bethesda Naval Hospital and pay only for his room and board, which is currently $34 a day.

Receives Sum For Clerks

The chief medical officer on Capitol Hill is Dr. George Calver, who is also a rear admiral in the Navy. In addition to his Navy salary of $21,847, Congress has provided Dr. Calver with an annual expense allowance of $1,500 and a seven­ passenger, air-conditioned limousine, complete with chauffeur.

In addition to all this — salary, income ­tax deduction, expense allowances and subsidies, and assorted fringe benefits — a congressman also gets an undisclosed amount for clerk hire. This is one of the great icebergs on the hill.

Salaries are rarely what they seem on Capitol Hill, due to a weird anachronism known as the “base-pay” system. It works this way:

Mrs. Betty Baker, who is carried on Representative Harlan Hagen’s (D., Cal.) payroll at $5 a year, actually draws an annual salary of $833. Mrs. Baker’s husband, George C. Baker, also is on Hagen’s staff. His annual base pay is listed as $7,000. Actually, Baker is making $14,345, the highest salary a House member can pay his staff.

Get $23,000 Allowance

House members get a base payroll allowance of $23,000 a year, to stretch over a maximum of 10 employees. In practice, a congressman can more than double this sum. Thus, although Representative Frank Thompson (D., N. J.) reported a base payroll of $22,700 during the month of April, he was actually paying his staff at a rate of $53,690 a year.

The base-pay fiction got its start during World War II. At the outset a $7,000-a­-year man was simply that. As the cost of living mounted, Congress stacked pay raise after pay raise on the original base. The formula became increasingly complex.

Today, this base pay is so intricate that members of Congress have to consult a 47-page table to figure out what they are paying their staff employees.

Senators Use System

The system has been allowed to stand for the obvious political reason that a congressman’s payroll should appear modest to cost-conscious constituents. It is impossible for an outsider to figure precisely how much in gross salaries a congressman can pay out of his $23,000 base-pay kitty, which is just the way almost all congressmen want to have it.

Senators, who also use the base-pay system, can hire any number of employees. Based on figures released for the first three months of 1962, their payrolls ranged from $18,000 a year for the late Senator Styles Bridges (R., N. H.) to more than $190,000 a year for Senator Jacob Javits (R., N Y.)

Disguised Salaries

The base-pay system is also used to disguise salaries paid to district office workers. The average citizen does not understand these salary arrangements and might resent them if he knew the truth.

The base-pay system is particularly useful in such instances when a reporter learns that Congressman “X” has his wife on the payroll. The Congressman can take a good deal of sting out of the charge by explaining in a newsletter.

“Certainly, Hattie is on my payroll,” he might report. “Her base pay is $3,000 and she earns every cent of it!” (Note to the taxpayer: In this situation, Hattie would really be making $6,781.)

Most Do Better

Actually, most Congressional wives do better than that. Of the 24 wives the House’s records showed on congressman’s payrolls in April, nine were making over $10,000 a year. The average was $8,309.

One of the wives is Y. Marjorie Flores, who makes $12,439 a year. There is no congressman named Flores, but there is one named Adam Clayton Powell (D., N.Y.) who married his secretary, Y. Marjorie Flores, two years ago and continues to carry her on his payroll under her maiden name. As a wedding present, Powell gave his bride a $9,900-a-year raise. Neither Mrs. Powell’s employment, nor the handsome raise is illegal, since Congress has never barred its members from hiring relatives.

Not Highest Paid

Mrs. Powell has an “office” 20 miles west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she waited out her pregnancy while remaining on the payroll. On May 27, she gave birth to a boy.

There is little opportunity to check on how much time Mrs. Powell puts in on her $12,439-a-year job because Powell keeps the door to his office locked and months ago posted a sign: ‘This office is closed. Please transact all business at Room 429.” That is the office of the Education and Labor Committee, of which Powell is chairman.

Mrs. Powell is not the highest paid wife on a congressman’s staff. That honor goes to Mrs. Morgan Moulder, who is currently paid the top salary allowable — $14,375 a year.

Mrs. Moulder is her husband’s “field representative” in his hometown of Camdenton, Mo. Moulder says her salary is “right in line” with what other members pay employees in their district offices. However, when Moulder maintained a district office in Columbia, Mo., in 1961, House records show he paid Mrs. Helen Wiggins $3,000 a year to run it for him.

In-Law Owns Office

The Camdenton office is owned by Moulder’s father-in-law, who collects $100 a month for it from the Government.

Moulder says his wife keeps regular hours “from about 10 in the morning to 4 o’clock” in the office, but he admits that “politically, it’s not very good,” especially since there is a law in Missouri which prohibits State officials’ relatives from being placed on the payroll.

Whether it is Moulder or Powell or anyone else, it all adds up, taxpayer’s dollar on taxpayer’s dollar, to the point that the total legislative budget has soared to $147,594,000 — or $275,000 a year per congressman.

Copyright, 1962, by The Courier-Journal