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HELENA — Too bad everyone can’t work for Congress.

Between 2007 and 2008, the average wage for Montana workers went up 3.4 percent, from $32,224 to $33,305, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Not so for congressional staffers. In 2008, the House of Representatives voted to increase the money each member gets to pay their staffs by 9 percent, although it’s up to each representative to decide on the amount of raises for individual employees.

That sum also includes expenses like office supplies and travel, but nonetheless it’s still almost three times higher than the rate by which Montana and the rest of the nation’s workers saw their wages climb, according to numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And for some staffers, a 9 percent raise seems downright measly. Statistics show some, including some who work for Montana’s three-man congressional team, have often received raises that approach 25 percent.

Yet Ty Matsdorf, a Baucus spokesman, points out that congressional work can be a consuming grind. Even now, he said, many of Baucus’ staff has been working 15 hours a day, 24 days straight as Baucus plays a central role in the health care reform bill, which the Senate was to vote on today.

“These jobs are stressful and intense,” he said. “Yet staffers work day in and day out to improve the lives of Montanans.”

And while some of the salaries may seem large by Montana standards, in many cases congressional staff is making less than other similar jobs in the private sector in Washington, D.C., where most congressional workers live.

Still, the statistics are clear: Many congressional staffers receive yearly increases in pay that vastly exceed the modest increases ordinary workers in Montana and the rest of the nation experience.

When Melodee Hanes, a former high-ranking staffer for and currently live-in girlfriend of Sen. Max Baucus, got a generous 15 percent raise in 2008 while she was dating him, it raised eyebrows.

That was a big raise, said Jock Friedly, president and founder of LegiStorm, a Washington, D.C., research Web site that publishes congressional staff salaries, “but not unheard of Capitol Hill.”

Regarding the House’s 9 percent increase for personal staff, Friedly said even some employees took note. “I talked to one chief of staff in the House who said it was just scandalous what they did,” Friedly said.

Still, the tradition of giving big raises didn’t begin then.

In 2006, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Montana, paid Erik Iverson, his then chief of staff, just more that $128,000. The next year, that jumped to $159,828, almost a 25 percent raise. Rehberg gave his deputy chief of staff, Robert J. Martin, a 14.5 percent raise in that same period.

In 2006, Baucus paid Maureen Rice, his administrative manager, almost $85,000. The next year, he bumped that up 8.5 percent to $92,249. In 2008, he gave Rice an 18 percent raise, bringing her pay to $108,000.

In 2007, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., paid his Helena-based state director Bill Lombardi $109,997. He gave Lombardi a 17.5 percent raise that year, bumping Lombardi up to $129,266.

The employees who work directly for a representative or congressman work “at the pleasure” of the officeholder. That means the official can hire whomever he or she pleases for a job; jobs needn’t be advertised and there is wide discretion about what the official chooses to pay his staff or how much staff the office holder has. These staffers can be fired at will.

Senators and representatives have a set amount of money they can spend on their staff, Friedly said. There are few parameters on how the official can spend that money. In the House, members may not hire more than 18 people and they can’t pay any one person more than $170,000, Friedly said.

In the Senate, staff budgets are determined by the size of a member’s state and legislative rules. Baucus’ total office budget was just more than $3 million, an amount that also includes travel. The Senate sets a salary cap of $169,459; no one on either Baucus or Tester’s staff makes that much.

Beyond that, members can divvy up the money however they wish. They can give some staff much higher raises than others; they may hire fewer staff and pay all of them more; they may hire more staff and pay each less.

The Senate most recently voted to increase its office staff budgets by 3.4 percent, a smaller raise than the one the House passed the year before, but still ahead of the 2.4 percent increase in the national average wage American wage earners saw between 2007 and 2008, according to federal statistics.

Figures for 2009 are not yet available.

Members who are also chairmen of committees, like Baucus, have even more leeway with money. Committees also hire staff. Statistics show he has often temporarily assigned some of his personal staff to the Senate Finance Committee, of which he serves as chair. During the time the employee is assigned to the committee, their wages come from the committee’s coffers. In this way, Friedly said, officials can make the pool of money they have available for personal staff salaries stretch farther.

For example, after Baucus was known to have begun his relationship with Hanes, he reassigned her to the Finance Committee to work as a senior adviser for seven work days in the middle of December 2008. His committee paid her $3,111.09 for that time, or about $55 an hour. That hourly rate is actually low for a lawyer like Hanes, even in Montana, where, according to national labor statistics, lawyers earn significantly less than lawyers in Washington, D.C.

It’s not just committee chairs who share employees with committees — thereby saving money to be spent on other salaries. When Rehberg was involved in a serious boating accident this summer on Flathead Lake, he was accompanied by two staffers who were also injured. One, Kristin Smith, was an assistant to Rehberg working for the House Appropriations Committee, of which Rehberg is a member. Only $936.44 of the $99,750 that Smith has made so far this year came from the money Rehberg has to pay staff. The rest came from the House Appropriations Committee, according to statistics.

Why members share employees or assign their employees to committees they oversee varies, Friedly said. Whatever the reasoning, it allows members to pay employees with money that does not come from their own personal staff accounts.

Records show that, in the House at least, such shared employees are truly shared and will often work for people of both parties. Rehberg, for example, has a woman named April Blankenship on his payroll. She also works for the House Ways and Means committee and long list of that committee’s members, both Democrat and Republican. Most members contribute only a few thousand dollars to her salary, although Blankenship has brought home $125,583 so far this year.

Statistics show congressional staff wages are significantly higher — and going up much faster — than wages in Montana, where the average worker brought home $33,305 last year. To be sure, most congressional employees live in Washington, D.C., where wages are significantly higher than Montana; the average D.C. worker brought home almost twice as much as Montana wage-earner in 2008. But even in Washington, wages are not going up at the level seen in congressional staff paychecks.

There are notable exceptions. Patrick Devlin, Tester’s communications director, made just more than $105,000 in 2008, the last year for which complete data is available. Devlin works in Washington, where the average communications specialist made more than $131,000 that same year.

Tester also has a Montana-based press secretary, Aaron Murphy. Murphy made about $58,000 in the year that ended Sept. 30.

That’s less than the salaries for many of the press secretaries of Montana’s statewide elected officials.

Still, the congressional staff raises come in striking contrast to Montana’s rank-and-file state workers, who agreed through their unions to no raises for two years for many workers to help the state balance its budget in the middle of the recession. State workers who made $45,000 or less got a one-time $450 bonus.

Tester has 43 staff divided among his Washington office and his eight offices throughout the state. Tester’s current personal staff budget is just more than $3 million. Like Baucus, Tester must use that amount to cover salaries, travel and supplies.

In the nearly three years since Tester has been in office, he has never used the entire amount available to him for staff. Records show Baucus, while at times spending more than Tester, has also spent less than the money allotted.

Murphy said Tester “went out of his way to hire experienced employees, dedicated to hard, even round-the-clock, work and public service.”

“Their salaries are hard-earned,” Murphy said, adding that raises reflect merit, promotion or cost-of-living increases.

Matsdorf said Baucus also gives “appropriate pay increases,” adding that the senator’s staff don’t “do it for the money, rather they do it to make a difference for our state and our nation.”

A representative for Rehberg was out for the Christmas holiday.

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Here’s a look at some of the notable raises Montana’s congressional members have given their staffs recently.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg — Erik Iverson; chief of staff; paid $128,079.60 in 2006 and $159,828 in 2007 for a 25 percent increase. He no longer works for Rehberg.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus — Melodee Hanes; state director/senior counsel; paid $109,999 in 2007 and $126,541 in 2008 for a 15 percent raise. She left Baucus’ staff earlier this year.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester — Bill Lombardi, state director, paid $109,997 in 2007 and $129,266 in 2008 for a 17.5 percent increase.
Source: www.LegiStorm.com