published Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Budget cuts fall on staffs more than legislators


by Chris Carroll
People visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
People visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON —While millions of federal workers are facing furloughs, automatic budget cuts don't appear to be thinning local lawmakers' wallets.

It's different at the highest levels of government. President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State John Kerry have announced this month they're giving back money in solidarity with federal workers confronting pay cuts.

But ask local lawmakers about personal cutbacks, and they'll refuse the question or redirect it to their congressional offices, whose workers are absorbing the brunt of what's formally known as sequestration.

"In anticipation of the likely implementation of sequestration, my office eliminated four full-time positions through attrition, which is 10 percent of personnel," said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

That means Chambliss cut his Washington and Georgia office staff from 40 to 36, declining to fill positions for staff assistants, legislative correspondent and deputy press secretary.

"We've been combining job duties/titles for a while now in an effort to cut costs," Chambliss spokeswoman Lauren Claffey said in an email.

It's a similar situation in U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's office. The Tennessee Republican and former Chattanooga mayor has left a few positions unfilled, including a legislative assistant.

"We assigned her portfolio to other folks," Corker chief of staff Todd Womack said. "It would have been great to keep that position."

Several Southern members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Phil Roe of Tennessee, said they are considering giving back some of their salaries to the U.S. Treasury. But other members blanched, privately mentioning the difficulty of raising families and maintaining residences in their home states and Washington, where the cost of living is much higher than in the South.

Members of Congress make $175,000 per year.

"I've done some [giving back] in the past, but some of the trouble I ran into was nobody believed I did it," Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, said with a laugh. "I'm considering it, but I haven't made that commitment yet."

The Constitution bars members of Congress from refusing their pay or altering it during a term. But lawmakers can get around that by sending some of their paychecks to the Treasury to reduce the deficit.

U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have said sequestration has inspired them to take that route.

But several Tennessee and Georgia House Republicans, many of whom are vocal when it comes to cutting federal spending, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they're personally sacrificing.

Those include U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia and U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais, Jimmy Duncan and Stephen Fincher of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons, senators from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama won't be returning any of their salaries to the Treasury.

Independently wealthy before his election in 2006, Corker always has donated his entire salary to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which distributes the money to local charities.

"He's been very fortunate in life and has the ability to do that," Womack said.

Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Sessions of Alabama donate portions of their paychecks to charities, aides said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's office did not respond directly to an emailed question about the Tennessee Republican's salary.

"Since taking office [in 2003], Senator Alexander has returned nearly $3,170,000 from his office budget," Alexander spokesman Jim Jeffries said.

All six senators from the tri-state area reported no furloughs or layoffs. But most said they're unlikely to hire new staffers every time someone leaves.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at 423-280-2025 or ccarroll@timesfreepress.com.

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