Yes Or No, Congressman: Will You Give Up Your Paycheck?

Several years ago, I consulted with a major organization regarding a brewing crisis.

My contact—the head of communications—asked me to review the situation and give her my best communications advice. When she called the next day to ask what I had come up with, I uttered two lines that made her gasp: “You don’t have a communications problem. You have a policy problem.” Until her organization’s policy was changed, I said, communications couldn’t solve her problem.

I thought of that story when I saw several members of Congress fumbling a question they should have seen coming from a mile away: “Since federal workers aren’t getting paid, will you give up your paycheck?”

As an example, take a look at this interview from CNN with Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):

Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) told the Omaha World Herald: “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), according to The Huffington Post, said: “I think every American should get paid for his or her labor…That includes members of Congress. I didn’t create the shutdown.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told WTVD-TV: “I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.”

According to The Washington Post, at least 137 members of Congress have agreed to donate or refuse their salaries. But that leaves roughly 400 members who are pocketing their paychecks as 800,000 federal workers—and countless other people affected by the shutdown—are unable to pocket theirs.

(On Saturday, the House voted to pay federal workers retroactively when the shutdown ends; that does little to help anxious workers living paycheck to paycheck in the short term.)

This isn’t a communications problem. It’s a policy problem.

There’s no way a communications professional can message this problem successfully. When the people widely perceived as causing the problem are continuing to live their own financial lives unaffected by the shutdown, no amount of spin can help them out of the corner they placed themselves in.


These members of Congress remind me of the late hotelier Leona Helmsley, who allegedly quipped: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”


There was an easy way around this.

My personal view is that no member of Congress should be allowed to receive a paycheck during a government shutdown by statute. In lieu of that, they should suspend their own pay or donate it, in full, to charity.

All of that aside, here’s what’s mind-boggling: If this shutdown lasts for two weeks, that represents just under four percent of their pay. If they normally donate four percent or more of their salaries to charity every year anyway, their decision should have been a no-brainer: donate the money they would normally give to charity out of the money they lost during the period of the shutdown.

Doing so would have allowed them to avoid the negative publicity without costing them an extra penny. But the thing is, they weren’t even smart enough to do that. Instead, they publicly insisted on living under their own privileged set of rules and keeping every bit of the taxpayers’ money they felt entitled to.

No wonder Congress has a 10 percent approval rating.

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a grateful h/t to: Political Wire, Huffington Post, Washington Post, reader Ken Molay