Sunday column: On politicians foregoing their paychecks

While some members of Congress gained attention last week by forgoing their government paychecks during the limited government shutdown, it may be worth noting that some Tennessee politicians had previously foregone their government paychecks even with state government still functioning.

Or maybe because it is.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, like Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen before him, returns his salary to the state. (There are some complicated factors, both federal IRS rules and state statutes, that combine to make rebating the way to go rather than just refusing to take the money.) This may be seen as the chief executives showing some respect for the spending of the state government they preside over, in collaboration with legislators. In other words, maybe, they trust themselves to spend wisely.

Haslam, like Bredesen before him, has always been happy to declare how much better Nashville is than Washington.

On the other hand, the members of Congress forgoing their pay — or at least the first two forgoing Tennesseans, U.S. Reps. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Jim Cooper, D-Nashville — are donating their shutdown salary to charity. This may be seen as showing disrespect for the federal government they help guide.

Indeed, the forgoing members of Congress are saying, in effect, we as individual politicians can better decide where to send federal money than the incompetent Congress and the rest of scumbag system of which we are part. And, by the way, they’re almost all against federal deficit spending, which presumably would be symbolically, if imperceptibly, lessened by a bit of returned money.

“It is wrong for Congress to continue to collect a paycheck while other federal employees across the country are furloughed as a result of the Senate Democrats’ government shutdown,” declared Black.

The 6th District congressman, by the way, was recently deemed the 25th most wealthy member of Congress in a Roll Call report, just behind Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker at no. 22 and just ahead of Sen. Lamar Alexander at 27. So not too much self-sacrifice is involved in turning down a check.

“Members of Congress should be punished for the shutdown of government,” said Cooper.

This, of course, is all good for political points. Polls more or less show that almost everybody hates Congress. Democrats rage at the Republican-controlled House. Republicans rage at the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president’s policies — especially the despicable Obamacare, declaring blocking it worth a semi-shutdown if not a shutdown of their paychecks.

Besides the governor, the forgoers at the state level include some halfway folk — State Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, for example. They hang on to their base salary — $19,009 per year versus $174,000 per year for members of Congress but forgo their $171-per-day expense allowance.

The expense payments can add up to more than the base salary for some lawmakers and have taken some criticism, especially for lawmakers living in the Nashville area who don’t have any motel and meal expenses. The General Assembly earlier this year put some new restrictions on the payments.

Henry turns his expense payments back to the state, as do a few other legislators. Harwell gives hers to charity. In contrast to the Congress-bashing congressmen, however, the speaker brags regularly about how great Tennessee state government is, as compared to the feds.

Of course, many legislators have an ambition to become members of Congress.For some reason, you never hear of a member of Congress wanting to serve in the Legislature.

Back in May, a Vanderbilt University poll found that 51 percent of Tennesseans had a favorable opinion of the state Legislature versus 21 percent for the U.S. Congress. One suspects Congress may have fallen even further out of favor since then.

The same poll found that President Barack Obama had 40 percent approval; Haslam 63 percent.

So why does anyone want to be part of a body that is widely disliked, even by those who are part of the body?

Must be the salary, right? Which may cast some doubt on the old adage about people getting what the pay for. Unless, of course, the salary is going to a really worthy charity.