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Why Congress protected its own pay in the sequester deal

National Constitution Center

Congressional staffers face layoffs and furloughs in two weeks, but Congress members made sure their own paychecks were safe when passing the “sequester law” in 2011.

Technically, the mandatory cuts to military and domestic federal spending are part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The act contained a “poison pill”–the threat of stark budget cuts by January 2013 in the form of what’s known as the sequester.

That threat was pushed back to March 1, 2013, as part of a compromise made in January. But now, barring a last-second deal, it looks like the sequester will happen.

The sequestration of funds requires that most government agencies cut their budgets by the same percentage across the board. Currently, the cuts add up to $1.2 trillion over a decade.

Right now, non-military government agencies need to cut their costs by 8.2 percent starting on March 1, 2013. Defense branches will have to cut costs by 9.4 percent. (Those percentages could be lower for the first year of cuts.)

Last fall, President Barack Obama’s administration gave a detailed report, via the Office of Management and Budget, about which agencies had to cut costs–and which government folks were exempt.

“The number of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, and federal prosecutors would be slashed. The Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to oversee and manage the Nation’s airspace and air traffic control would be reduced,” said the OMB.

Included in the mandatory cuts are expenses the members of Congress use to hire and maintain their staffs. In all, the operational expenses for Congress add up to $133 million annually.

Staffers face 22 days of furloughs, which add up to about a 20 percent pay cut for them, and layoffs lurk as a possibility.

Unless, of course, you are an actual member of Congress. Your pay can’t be cut as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

So why are the “bosses” in Congress not suffering with the staff, at least not until later this spring?

The 27th Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress from changing its own pay during a current  term of Congress. The sequester “poison pill” in the 2011 Budget Control Act was scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013, the last day of the prior Congress.

The actual rules for who gets sequestered, and who doesn’t, are set by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985, as amended. The Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010 can also be a factor when a sequester goes into effect.

Congressional pay is just one of many programs that will be exempt from cuts. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Most exempt programs are mandatory, and include Social Security and Medicaid; refundable tax credits to individuals; and low-income programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income.”

Somehow, Congress found a way to delay its own pay, possibly until January 2015, by agreeing to put its pay in escrow on April 16, 2013, as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Even that act has been subject to a vigorous debate as a possible violation of the 27th Amendment, and it could be challenged if the budget deadlock drags out.

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