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Vermont's Three Members of Congress Give Staffers $236,830 in Taxpayer-Funded Bonuses

With only one congressman and two senators, Vermont’s congressional delegation may be small. But that isn’t stopping Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) from doling out big dollars–$236,830, to be exact–to members of their staffs.

As the Burlington Free Press reports:

Of the three lawmakers, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, gave the most in bonuses. Twenty-nine of his personal office staffers received bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 last year, totaling $138,830. Leahy, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, also gave bonuses to 25 committee staffers, totaling $112,048.

Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle, said many other lawmakers use Leahy’s office salary structure “because it is flexible and fair and rewards good work.”

Sanders gave $2,000 bonuses to 32 people on his personal staff, totaling $64,000. He also gave $2,000 bonuses to two staffers on the Senate health subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, which he chairs.

Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, gave each of his 17 staffers a $2,000 bonus, totaling $34,000. House office budgets are authorized by calendar year and Senate office budgets are authorized by fiscal year.

News of the taxpayer-funded big bonuses comes at a time when state budgets are being slashed, the nation’s unemployment is still above eight percent, and the U.S. government is $15 trillion in debt.

Still, say members of the Vermont delegation, their staff members deserve the bonuses because they did a good job:

The Vermont lawmakers saw the bonuses as a way to reward hard-working staffers, many of whom earn much less than they would in the private sector.

Michael Briggs, a spokesman for independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “We have an extremely hard-working and aggressive staff that puts in long hours and (Sanders) could hire more people but does not. That’s how he’s able to give back to the taxpayers the amount that he does at the end of the fiscal year.”

Indeed, the Burlington Free Press notes that Sen. Sanders will return 10.9 percent of his office’s $3 million annual budget. Sen. Leahy, who also has a $3 million office budget will give back 11.7 percent.

But Bradford Fitch, the CEO of a nonprofit group called the Congressional Management Foundation that advises members of Congress on procedures, says giving staffers bonuses is a good idea:

“It still is extremely helpful to managing an office,” he said. “Especially when you take into consideration that, in general, congressional staff get anywhere from 20 to 30 percent less pay than counterparts with similar experience and education in the private sector. Bonuses are one of the ways that they can compensate for that.”

While relatively few working Americans may receive year-end bonuses, according to a 2010 House Compensation Study, handing out bonuses to congressional staff members is a rather common practice:

Lawmakers have the discretion to decide whether to give bonuses, and most do. A 2010 House Compensation Study by ICF International found that 77 percent of 133 offices surveyed gave bonuses that year. That’s down from 89 percent in 2009 and 92.3 percent in 2006, according to the study, produced for the House Chief Administrative Office.

Perhaps Sen. Sanders, who is himself a self-described socialist, and the rest of Congress would do well to remember Lady Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that the trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.

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