For federal agencies, the current sequester-related budget crunch is unprecedented. Congress, however, isn’t letting go of one venerable tradition: Paying a year’s congressional salary (currently at a base level of $174,000) as a death benefit to the spouse of a lawmaker who dies in office.
No across-the-board cut here: The fiscal 2014 continuing resolution unveiled yesterday authorizes the full payment to Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, widow of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Frank Lautenberg died in June at age 89. After rising from childhood poverty to lead the Automatic Data Processing payroll management company, Lautenberg was numbered among the Senate’s wealthiest men, with a net worth of at least $57 million, according to his most recent financial disclosure report.
A spokeswoman for the CR’s sponsor, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., did not respond to emailed questions.
To be clear, Bonnie Lautenberg is not getting special treatment; Congress has been providing this brand of survivor benefit since long before World War II, said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a watchdog group.
But it started in the days before members of Congress could get federally subsidized pensions or life insurance, he said. Now, a deceased lawmaker’s surviving spouse can not only receive a payout from the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Program, he or she can receive a survivor’s annuity under the Federal Employees Retirement System, he said.
“It’s hard to kick a widow or widower when they’ve just lost their loved one,” Sepp said when asked his view on whether the benefit should continue. “Still, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to examine whether it’s necessary in light of the other benefits that now exist.”