Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Before leaving office last year, Rep. Dina Titus offered her congressional staff a parting gift: almost $155,000 in bonuses.
Titus, a Democrat who lost a tight race for re-election to Republican Joe Heck, made the payments from the annual allowance members of Congress receive for staff and office costs. The payouts almost doubled Titus’ personnel budget.
During the first three quarters of 2010, Titus spent an average of $185,000 on 17 staff salaries. The total jumped to $340,000 in the fourth quarter.
Any unspent money left in congressional office budgets — which range from $1.4 million to $2 million a year — is returned to the U.S. Treasury. Overages come out of Congress members’ pockets.
Titus’ payouts placed her 10th among 435 House members for the jump in payments to employees. The most generous members of Congress were those who, like Titus, either lost in November or retired.
For Democrats, the 21 percent increase in fourth-quarter pay was “record breaking,” said Jock Friedly, president and founder of LegiStorm, a nonpartisan group that tracks congressional salaries and compiled the bonus tallies.
Representatives leaving Congress didn’t have the same incentive to cut government spending as they did when facing voters, and many felt indebted to staff members who would soon be unemployed, Friedly said.
Titus described the payouts as “salary increases,” not bonuses. She said her staff accepted smaller checks during the first three quarters with the understanding that they would be paid more in the fourth quarter, if money remained in the office budget.
Congressional staff members received no severance pay last year, as they did in 2006, Titus said. But she conceded that had her budget been exhausted she would not have given her staff additional pay from her own pocket.
Even with year-end increases, her staff was the lowest paid of the Nevada delegation, she said. Titus said during her two years in office she returned $150,000 of her staff allocation to the Treasury — $120,000 in 2009 and $30,000 last year — or about 10 percent of her allotment.
“We were very frugal with the federal dollars,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley handed out $64,000 in bonuses last year, while Republican Rep. Dean Heller gave out just under $20,000, according to LegiStorm’s analysis.
Friedly said the increased pay among departing House Democrats reflects other factors.
“Members of Congress also want to make sure their staff remains loyal even after they leave office,” Friedly said. “They want to make sure they aren’t telling secrets they shouldn’t tell and that they remain part of their ongoing political network.”
Titus, who lost re-election by less than 2,000 votes, is widely expected to seek public office again. She might challenge Heck in the 3rd Congressional District or run for Nevada’s soon-to-be-created 4th Congressional District.
Generous bonuses are not unique to Democrats. In 2006, when Republicans were voted out of the House in droves, they increased fourth-quarter salary spending by 23 percent, 2 percentage points more than Democrats did last year.
Although Republicans for the most part kept bonuses low last year, retiring Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida paid staffers 120 percent more in the fourth quarter than in the first three quarters. She had the biggest spending increase of any member of Congress. But overall, Republican spending was curbed because most remained in office.
About 10 percent of House members paid six-figure bonuses to their staffs, LegiStorm found. The 96 representatives leaving Congress increased staff pay by 31 percent for a total of $6.7 million. Members who remained in office boosted employee pay by only 16 percent.
Titus’ generosity could come back to bite her. Should she seek office again, Republicans are almost certain to slam her for adding to the national deficit.
“Given the mood in the country right now, this is a story that has some resonance with voters,” Friedly said. “There has been a sentiment in the country that public employees should not be paid bonuses.”