From the Miami Herald (Florida)
Posted on Sat, Mar. 06, 2010
Florida Congressmen spend tax money on luxury cars, high salaries and perks
Job losses, home foreclosures and the worst economy in decades have forced many Americans to cut back or do without.
But not members of Congress, who voted themselves a 5 percent increase in their own budgets for staff salaries, office expenses and perks last year.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat, paid two staffers about $160,000 apiece, and one of them was his longtime girlfriend.
When Corrine Brown, a Democrat from North Florida, traveled on Congressional business, she used a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car and an SUV at a cost of nearly $8,000.
And Tom Rooney, a House Republican from the Treasure Coast, spent about $2,500 to maintain an aquarium in his office.
To government watchdogs monitoring how our tax dollars are spent, the expenditures suggest some members of Congress are out of touch with the financial hardships that many of their constituents are facing.
"Shame on our Congress men and women to be so insensitive to the plight of Floridians and Americans who can barely make ends meet,'' said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch. "It's absolutely the wrong message at the wrong time.''
Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va., said lawmakers may not understand why "people could be upset over a few thousand dollars out of a budget of trillions, but it shouldn't surprise them.''
"It is a very important symbol of the federal government's overall behavior to watch the Ps and Qs on office expenditures,'' Sepp said. "It's one of the few costs of government that people can relate to directly.''
And it adds up to more than $1 billion a year.
Each of the nation's 535 senators and representatives receives an annual allowance for staff salaries, constituent mailings and office expenses, based in part on the distance between the lawmaker's district and Washington.
Florida's two senators get more than $4 million apiece while the state's 25 members of the U.S. House of Representatives receive about $1.5 million each. The allowance does not include the lawmaker's salary of $174,000.
The House's year-end expenses, released last month, show nine of Florida's representatives spent more in 2009 than the previous year, including Ron Klein. The Democrat from Boca Raton described himself as a "deficit hawk and fiscal conservative'' in a guest column published Feb. 25 in the Sun Sentinel.
"We know that tough times mean tightening our belts,'' Klein wrote. "Times like these require cutting back. This applies to our family budgets, our businesses and our government. Unfortunately, some in Washington missed that memo.''
Klein, it seems, may have been among them – his spending went up about $30,000 last year. Klein hired an additional employee in his district office "to better serve his constituents across South Florida,'' spokeswoman Melissa Silverman said.
Florida's highest-spending House member was Hastings, who went through 96.5 percent of his allowance, while the most frugal, Adam Putnam, a central Florida Republican, used 75.6 percent of his budget. The top 10 spenders were evenly split among Democrats and Republicans.
At the end of the year, any unspent money is returned to the U.S. Treasury. Some of the Floridians on Capitol Hill say they have sought to reduce expenses, freezing salaries and bonuses for their staffs, cutting back on constituent mailings and not replacing older office equipment.
How members of Congress use their allowances provides a glimpse at the workings -- and cost -- of the nation's legislative branch.
Staff salaries make up the biggest expense.
Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, a Republican who resigned in September, each spent over $3 million last year on their staffs of 60 to 70 employees. Nelson's next highest expense was travel – about $158,000 for the senator and his aides. Martinez' replacement, Republican Sen. George LeMieux, has not yet had to file his first expense report.
In the U.S. House, members are limited to 18 permanent employees and four others, such as part-timers or interns. Pay is determined by the lawmaker, but is not to exceed a set amount – $168,000 last year.
Most Florida representatives employed one high-earning staffer. But Hastings had two near the top of the pay scale: Chief of Staff Arthur Kennedy and Deputy District Director Patricia Williams, the congressman's girlfriend of many years.
The House nepotism rule prevents lawmakers from hiring relatives, including spouses, in-laws, aunts, uncles, and even cousins. But it does not exclude significant unmarried others.
Williams began working for the representative after he was first elected in 1992. She's a disbarred lawyer who represented Hastings in the 1980s, when he was tried and acquitted of accepting bribes as a federal judge and subsequently impeached and removed from the bench.
Williams' pay has gone up more than 30 percent since 2002, according to LegiStorm, a non-partisan group that tracks Congressional salaries.
Hastings' office did not respond to several emails or phone messages seeking comment.
Seven Florida representatives leased vehicles with their congressional allowances last year. The others drove their own cars and collected mileage reimbursements. Some did not charge the government at all for vehicle use on the job.
Out of his allowance, Mario Diaz-Balart leased a Honda Odyssey minivan for $803 a month, an expense the Republican from Miami justifies because his three-county district is one of the largest in Florida, said spokeswoman Adriana Pereira.
"On average, it can take the congressman two hours each way to travel from one side of the district to another,'' she said.
Rep. Kendrick Meek spent $977 a month to lease a "flexibile-fuel" GMC Yukon that runs on gas or a blend of gas and ethanol under a House rule requiring members to lease green vehicles. The monthly payment is high because representatives cannot use their allowances for down payments, and the lease is only for two years, coinciding with their term in office, said Meek's spokesman, Adam Sharon.
A Miami Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate, Meek took his own cars along with his family to Washington after winning election, and needs to rent a vehicle in his district, Sharon said.
Congressmen can also use their allowance to pay rent on offices in their districts. There is no limit on the number or size.
Most of Florida's representatives had one or two. But John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park, maintained six district offices, paying rent on five of them at a total cost of $5,277 a month. The central Florida district stretches across six counties, "so his offices are placed to make them more accessible to his constituents,'' said Chief of Staff Russell Roberts.
Other expenses, while not large, are inappropriate in times of need, government watchdogs say.
Brown charged $7,990 last year to Sunny's Executive Sedan, one of the largest limo companies in the world, according to its Web site.
Brown, a Democrat from Jacksonville, and her staff used a Lincoln Town Car and occasionally an SUV to get to and from airports in Washington, said Ronnie Simmons, her chief of staff. They sometimes flew into Baltimore because the airfares were cheaper, he said.
A taxi from the Baltimore airport to Washington costs about $100. Sunny's car service charges $121 for a Town Car and $159 for an SUV, a sales representative told the Sun Sentinel.
Rooney, a Republican whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, used $2,465 of his allowance to maintain an aquarium on loan from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.
"The aquarium represents the unique aquaculture industry'' of Rooney's district, said spokesman Jeff Ostermayer. "Congressman Rooney is proud to display this aquarium and have it for the enjoyment of constituents and visitors of his Washington office."
In the third quarter last year, Rooney also spent $628 on bottled water and a new filtration system to make tap water more suitable for drinking, Ostermayer said.
"Sometimes we still need to purchase bottled water for the aquarium, but it's a very small amount,'' he said. "This new system will save money. We are always looking for new ways to save money.''
Belt-tightening by members of Congress would only make a tiny dent in the federal deficit. But to government watchdog groups, it's only right that representatives share in their constituents' pain.
"The privilege is public service, not the perks that go with the job,'' said Calabro of Florida TaxWatch. "This is the time when they should cut back on their expenses.''
That's not likely to happen this year. Representatives and senators have voted themselves an overall increase in their 2010 allowances of more than $50 million.
Database specialist Dana Williams contributed to this report.
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