Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

As congressional elections approach, questions of pay during shutdown arise

By Megan Schrader Published: March 14, 2014

DENVER - It's been five months since the federal government ground to a halt amid a budgetary fight in Washington, D.C.

The 16-day shutdown cost the government 6.6 million days of lost work and eventually $2 billion in back pay for nonessential workers who were sent home, according to The White House Office of Management and Budget.

America's approval of Congress, in general, plummeted from a high of 18.5 percent in September to a low of 8.4 percent in October during the shutdown, according to the political polling site, RealClearPolitics.com.

In the face of extreme dislike - 84.7 percent of Americans disliked Congress - some elected officials pledged to return their salaries during the shutdown, and a few carried through with the promise.

But Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and political analyst, said the question of who donated their salary and who didn't is a minor drop of water among a sea of disapproval.

"It simply did not become a national story," Ciruli said. "There is so much wrong with Washington in terms of most people's view that this is a rather small irritant."

With elections coming in November for all but one member of congress - Sen. Michael Bennet - Ciruli said he'd be surprised if the pay issue is used for or against incumbents during campaign ads and literature.

"I suspect at this point it's almost a matter of personal preference and affordability rather than really playing defense," Ciruli said.

In Colorado, four members of the nine-member congressional delegation reported donating or returning their salary to the U.S. Treasury: Bennet, a Democrat, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner and Democrat Rep. Jared Polis.

Bennet's spokesperson said he donated $7,728, about 16 days of his salary, to three Colorado nonprofits helping with recovery from September's Front Range flooding.

Coffman donated 16 days of his salary to Red Cross of Colorado, according to an article in the Washington Post last month that tried to track every congressional member across the nation who donated a portion of their salary during the shutdown.

Gardner's staff said he donated some of his salary during the shutdown to the Weld County Food Bank and the rest to various other charities he and his family support.

And Polis - who has refused to collect a salary since taking office - continued to return his salary to the U.S. Treasury during the shutdown.

Some of the remaining five delegates had pledged to forfeit their salaries if federal workers weren't given back pay, but the final funding agreement between the House and Senate to reopen government ensured back pay for those employees.

"As was reported at the time, I asked to have my pay withheld during the shutdown and treated the same way as any other federal employees," Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs said. "When pay was restored retroactively four days into the shutdown by a unanimous, bipartisan bill that I cosponsored in the House, I allowed my pay to be restored as well. I also introduced legislation to protect all military and civilian federal workers from pay disruptions during the shutdown."

The House bill to restore lost pay to federal workers was never taken up in the Senate although the pay was included in the final bill ending the shutdown.

Reps. Diana DeGette, Scott Tipton and Ed Perlmutter and Sen. Mark Udall said almost the same thing in response to an inquiry from The Gazette, that their salaries were withheld during the shutdown and restored only when federal workers were paid. They all highlighted their work to avert the shutdown.

Since the shutdown, the approval rating for Congress has slowly been improving, but Ciruli said it's still abysmally low.

"What that raises is the question of whether or not all incumbents are going to be in danger this year," Ciruli said. "Normally we could look for a partisan advantage, and this time we're beginning to wonder if there is an incumbent disadvantage."

But Ciruli noted Congress has been working steadily since the shutdown to improve its image.

The first real budget in five years was passed in December, a bipartisan coalition pushed through the first Farm Bill - funding for food stamps and other critical programs - in almost as many years and there wasn't an ugly fight over the debt ceiling increase in January.

Ciruli said Washington, D.C. politicians might be trying to "shave off the worst of the rough edges" heading into elections.

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Contact Megan Schrader

719-286-0644

Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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