Lawmakers Try to Pay Down the National Debt, $200 at a Time

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On his first day in the House of Representatives in 2007, Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., sat down with his wife and staff and decided to return a portion of his congressional salary to the United States in an effort to reduce the public debt.

Walz, of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, is among a handful of congressmen who have chosen to freeze their salaries and donate the rest to the deficit.

"It's a token measure, but it's something I can do," he said.

How small a token?

Walz chose to keep his salary the same as his predecessor's, Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht, whom he defeated in 2006. Walz donated approximately $6,588 to the deficit between January and September 2010, according to the House's Statement of Disbursement, a quarterly public report containing all official receipts and expenditures for members of the House of Representatives.

Reps. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., and Frank Lobiondo, R-N.Y., also disclosed that they'd donated their congressional pay increases to the debt.

"When a pay increase is approved, he personally writes a check to return the money and specifically directs the U.S. Treasury Department to use it to pay down the public debt," Bachus spokesman Tim Johnson said. Bachus also requests that his unspent office funds go toward the national debt rather than to other congressional spending. In the fiscal year 2009, Bachus' office expenses came in about $200 underbudget, money he turned over to the U.S. Treasury Department for debt reduction. Bachus' member allowance was $1,516,638 in 2010.

Noble as these gestures look, these donated sums are too small to have much of an impact on the burgeoning deficit (every American has a $44,660.68 share in the nation's debt), and do not represent a huge chunk of a congressional salary, said Allyson Chadwick, who spent 16 years working with various members of Congress.

House members earn $174,000 a year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., makes $223,500 and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, makes $193,400. Each year members receive an automatic cost-of-living raise.

"The view of congressman Bachus is that at a time when families have to tighten their belts and watch their spending, Congress must as well," Johnson said.

A Matter of Disclosure

Bachus, Lobiondo and Walz are the only members who disclosed their contributions to Congress in 2010. Other members may have privately donated money to the debt and other charities but chose not to disclose it in the disbursement books.

Instead some reveal the donations directly to their constituents through press releases.

Take, for example, outgoing Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., who introduced the Taking Responsibility for Congressional Pay Act in March, which would cut congressional salaries by $8,700, marking the first cut to congressional pay since the Great Depression. In a November 2010 press release, Kirkpatrick said she'd been been putting her money where her mouth is, and sending $870 from her own paycheck each month to help pay down the national debt.

Publicizing such contributions through press releases can send a more effective message to constituents, since it isn't paired with congressional salaries or expenditure allowances as it is in the statement of disbursement, said Chadwick. Members of Congress make significantly more money than the average American (the median American income is $49,777, according to the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau), so these donations may seem more significant in a standalone press release that doesn't divulge other financial information, Chadwick said.

House Members' Donations Look Like a Lot Only When Compared With the Average American's Salary

"If you look at how much the average American makes, and these donations, it looks like a lot of money," said Chadwick. But if you look how much Congress members make and the federal budget, you can see it's not even making a dent to either."

Walz said he discloses his contributions purely for the purpose of transparency. "I don't want to sound self righteous on this," he said. "I just want to set an example. I'm proud of what I'm doing, but I don't want to be seen as the 'look at me, look at what I'm doing.' The theme for me is the transparency and the openness and doing my part."

Congress passed the law in 1961 that allows citizens to donate funds to the U.S. to reduce the country's deficit. In 2010, more than $2.8 million has been donated to the fund to help ease the $1.3 trillion deficit.

Chadwick said the main reason politicians make these donations -- and disclose them -- is because it looks good to their constituents, not because it will have any effect n the national debt. "It's a symbolic gesture," Chadwick said. "I think that's the main reason to do it. It's probably the only reason they do it. And it does make a nice press release: 'Member X donated 10 percent of their salary to the debt.''

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