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September 20, 2013

End Congress’ Death Gratuity

By Daniel Schuman

House of Representatives logoIn addition to whatever else the House jammed into last-minute legislation that would (barely) keep the government open, the House voted this morning to give a $174,000 gift to the widow of Sen. Frank Lautenberg. While we join Vice President Biden in offering our condolences to Mrs. Lautenberg and her family, why is the government throwing money at a multimillionaire? Sen. Lautenberg’s assets exceeded $57 million in 2011. How is this a top funding priority?

The situation is even more galling when you think about the choice it represents. Congress just voted to cut food stamps for poor children. A shameful number were unwilling to support relief from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. And the gears of progress have ground to a halt while the House has — pointlessly — voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare. In fact, another such senseless vote was held today. But there’s no obstacle — or objection — to helping out a member of the congressional club.

Congress traditionally has provided benefits to families of members of Congress who die in office. According to a 2012 CRS report, Congress pays to defray some funeral expenses, the erection of the monument, and for a delegation to attend the funeral, in addition to more symbolic expressions of mourning. This is on top of traditional retirement benefits. Congress also pays for a “death gratuity” — a payment to a surviving family member in the amount of the member’s annual salary, $174,000. Federal law treats that payment as a gift, so the recipient receives a year’s salary tax free.

Representatives and senators are in a better position to plan for their financial future. The average member of Congress is much wealthier than the average citizen, and has sufficient resources to purchase life insurance and otherwise plan ahead. While there is reasonable debate about congressional compensation, a death gratuity is unseemly and unnecessary. When you look at what Congress should be prioritizing, it is outrageous.

The self-serving attitude that the death gratuity embodies places members of Congress above the public they are elected to serve. The last place this giveaway belongs is in legislation intended to contain only the essential measures to keep the government open.

There are a lot of people who need a little help from the government. Let’s make sure the money goes to them.

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