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WASHINGTON TODAY: Pair gave big raises on way out the door

August 25, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Win or lose, working for a member of Congress can bring big rewards.

After their bitter campaign last fall, South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler and the Democratic congressman who defeated him, Tim Johnson, both handed out big raises to their staffs, according to an Associated Press analysis of congressional payroll records.

After the election, nearly all of Johnson’s 22 congressional aides got $3,000 in extra pay. For some low-level aides, that was two or three times their monthly pay for October.

Pressler, a Republican, doubled the average monthly pay of his Senate staff and put his campaign manager on the taxpayer-funded Senate payroll for his last four weeks in office.

Pressler’s December payroll was higher than any other U.S. senator’s and nearly $100,000 over the average.

``Like Hollywood game shows, Washington offices offer generous parting gifts,″ said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a watchdog group.

Pressler’s and Johnson’s post-election generosity is the latest, and one of the more striking, examples of how departing senators and House members often use taxpayer dollars to reward loyal aides. Congressional critics have been pushing for years to curb the practice.

``It’s not their money. It’s our money,″ said Gary Ruskin of the Ralph Nader-founded Congressional Accountability Project.

Lawmakers have wide discretion in hiring and compensating staff members within overall spending allowances. Technically they cannot give bonuses, but departing lawmakers frequently give end-of-the-year raises to reward loyal staff members, officials say.

Pressler said the raises were compensation for extra time his staff had to put in sorting files and packing his Senate offices after the Nov. 5 election. ``We had a very intense period of time of about a month to be out of our office,″ he said.

But Pressler’s former office manager, Danna Lane, contradicted him.

``You’ve heard of use-or-lose-it?″ she asked a reporter, an apparent reference to the fact that a senator’s unspent money would stay in the U.S. treasury. She added, ``It was not overtime pay. It was not bonuses either.″ She refused to elaborate and hung up the telephone.

The exact size of the pay raises aides got from Pressler is impossible to tell because of the way the Senate reports personnel expenses. It is clear, however, that the raises were substantial, and the largest ones generally went to aides who had also worked on his campaign.

Lane was paid $21,327 between October and December, 88 percent of her April-September pay.

Altogether, Pressler’s payroll expenses soared from $113,081 last October to $222,514 in December.

Karen Dvorak, Pressler’s campaign manager, was paid $8,055 as a ``special assistant″ on his Senate staff from Dec. 4 to Jan. 2. Pressler said he hired her to help shut down his South Dakota offices. Dvorak, who once was a field representative for Pressler, did not return repeated telephone calls.

Johnson intended his end-of-the year raises as merit pay, said Steve Jarding, his deputy chief of staff. ``He’s done it almost every year, whether it’s an election year or not,″ said Jarding.

Not like he did it last year, however.

In 1995, a non-election year, Johnson aides were given an extra $500 each in December. Last year, Johnson gave aides $1,350 in additional pay for November and $1,650 extra for December, relatively huge sums for many of them.

Johnson’s personnel expenses in November and December were up more than 50 percent from the last two months of 1995.

Among Johnson’s staffers, legislative assistant Jon Hanson was paid $2,463 in October, $3,813 for November and $4,113 in December. Susan Miller, a caseworker, saw her monthly pay balloon from $1,833 in October to $3,483 in December.

``Senator Johnson may argue that this is merit pay, but nobody gives merit pay to their whole staff,″ said Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. ``It can’t be merit pay. It’s something else.″

Johnson’s generosity did not stop in December. After he moved to the Senate in January, he took advantage of the larger spending allowances accorded to senators and gave aides substantial raises over what they were making in the House before the election. Top-level members of Johnson’s House staff got raises averaging more than 40 percent.

Pressler, who was one of 14 senators who left office last year, was not alone in giving post-election raises _ just the most generous.

Then-Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., boosted his personnel expenses from $140,000 in October to $204,000 in December, the Senate’s second-highest payroll that month. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, boosted his payroll from $141,000 in October to $189,000 in December.

The House has changed its rules to discourage end-of-the-year raises. Unspent office allotments now are automatically applied toward the deficit. Previously, unspent funds reverted to the control of the party in power.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Philip Brasher is a Washington-based regional reporter for Minnesota and the Dakotas for The Associated Press.

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