The Senate last week quietly doubled its office decorating allowance and increased the amount of money the chamber will pay for lawmakers’ funerals.
The decorating allowance alone could cost taxpayers at least $500,000 when it is made available to all 100 Senators — money that lawmakers may use to purchase furniture or draperies, or for custom upholstering of chairs and sofas in their personal offices.
The Senate also boosted the amount of money it will allot for a deceased Senator’s funeral. While the chamber already pays for everything from the “transportation of remains to the mortuary” to the “funeral home expenses for the receipt, care and arrangement of floral tributes and a supply of acknowledgement cards,” the move increases and then caps payouts on certain items such as the burial vault, casket, and burial plot. Such payouts have been increased from $2,000 to $5,000 for a burial vault and casket and from $1,000 to $2,000 for a burial plot. In addition, the Senate limited the amount of money that can be paid for miscellaneous expenses, such as the minister and musicians, to $2,500.
“These things haven’t been changed in many years, and it is an adjustment that reflects reality,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in an interview Tuesday.
Government watchdog groups seized on the news that the Senate had increased funding for the two programs at time when the country is struggling to come out of a recession, describing it as just another example of out of control spending on Capitol Hill.
“Members of Congress are over perked and overpaid and these are just two small ways that they have feathered their own nests,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project.
“There has been no effort to restrain spending,” added Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “This is not a good time to be expanding privileges on Capitol Hill.
“It is the message to taxpayers, ‘This is another way we are going to take care of ourselves at your expense,’” Schatz added.
But Lott defended the Senate’s actions and said he wouldn’t be “intimidated” by the opinions of outside groups.
“Do you know what I got to say to them? ‘Go to …,’” said Lott, who stopped his sentence short. “I am not intimidated by that sort of thing. That is what I get to do as chairman of the Rules Committee.”
When asked to comment on changes to the regulations, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), the ranking member on Rules, said he needed to look into the matter before responding. Dodd’s office later released a prepared statement from Marvin Fast, the Connecticut Democrat’s spokesman.
“These updates to existing Committee regulations, authorized by statute, were requested by the Senate Sgt at Arms and a bipartisan group of Senate offices, who sought these changes,” Fast said. “For example, it has been almost 16 years since the funeral allowance was last reviewed. Both updates were run by all members of the Rules Committee, and in bipartisan agreement, deemed appropriate.”
The measures were updated and approved by the Democratic and Republican members of the Rules panel, but did not require a vote by the full Senate.
The chamber empowers the Rules panel to make such changes and publish adjustments in the Congressional Record. The changes were published in the Record on Nov. 3.
Schatz said it is not a common practice for the private sector to pay for an executive’s funeral, a responsibility the Senate officially undertook in the mid-1980s.
“Certainly that is not a perk that most companies would provide for their executives and certainly it is not generally available for taxpayers at the expense of their employers,” he said.
Pete Sepp, an official with the National Taxpayers Union, was more blunt in his assessment of this death benefit.
“It is Congress’ version of cradle to grave care,” Sepp said. “We can only hope they don’t adopt a program that identifies future Members of Congress in the cradle and pay for their daycare.”
The new funeral regulations were adopted on Nov. 3, but went into effect retroactively to Nov. 1.
While Senate offices are already outfitted with chairs, desks, lamps, rugs, sofas, tables and telephones, the Senators’ Special Furniture and Accessory Allowance was created “for Senators to purchase from this special allowance furniture and accessory items, which are unique to their offices and/or home states.”
Beginning Jan. 3, 2005, Senators elected or re-elected in the 2004 election cycle and each subsequent new Congress will be allowed to spend up to $5,000 over the course of their six-year term to accessorize their office.
The cap is currently $2,500 per six-year term.
“You stop and think about $2,500 to decorate an office, which is a suite including the conference room, the reception room and the Member’s room, it is not nearly adequate,” Lott said.
The regulation offers a strict guideline on what types of items Senators may purchase with funds from their accessory allowance and states that the items are government property.
“The purchase of items of art, antiques and artifacts is not provided for in this allowance,” according to the regulation. The regulation later lists several examples of items that cannot be purchased such as “ashtrays, paintings, frames, photographs, clocks, cut flowers, decorative flowers, vases or bookends.”
“The Senate wants to be better upholstered irrespective to our enormous federal debt and ballooning federal deficit,” said Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. “It is the latest in how Members of Congress show that they wish not to lead by example.”