Rep. Bill Posey is nowhere near the top of Congress’s wealthiest members, with a 2016 maximum net worth of roughly $630,000. Yet the Florida Republican is trying to eliminate one of the body’s choicest perks, a customary “death gratuity” of one year’s salary, paid out in the event that a member of Congress dies while in office.
Disbursed to the member’s widow or children, the funds are typically set aside via the annual legislative-branch appropriations act, or legislation providing supplemental funds for the legislative branch.
For rank-and-file members, that comes out to $174,000, with members of leadership eligible for even more. It’s treated as a gift and thus tax-free, which, as Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress points out, means it’s equivalent to more than one year’s salary. Death-gratuity payments for civil-service employees killed in the line of duty are significantly lower, fixed at $10,000 since 1997. Benefits for funeral expenses have been capped at $800 since 1966.
For Congress, it’s hardly a unique circumstance. Eighty-eight House members and senators have passed away in office since 1973.
The payments to family members, along with a law allowing for Congress to defray funeral expenses, have long been controversial, especially after independently wealthy Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Ted Kennedy passed away. When Kennedy died in 2009, he held trusts worth tens of millions of dollars—a legacy of his family wealth. Lautenberg made his millions as CEO of payroll-processing company Automatic Data Processing, and died in 2013 with between $55 million and $116.1 million to his name, including a modern art collection.
“It should never be happening,” Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told USA Today at the time, noting that Congress had been in a belt-tightening mood. “This is not to pick on Sen. Lautenberg’s family in any way. They’re grieving. But when the government is preaching austerity—and about to shut down the government even—no one even blinks about sending $174,000.”
The House did initially balk at the death benefit, but the measure was tucked into the final budget deal that reopened the government after the 2013 shutdown.
Had the Senate balked as well, it would have been turning its back on a tradition almost as long as the Republic. The Congressional Research Service points out that both chambers have provided public funds for funerals and death gratuities for more than 200 years. Cannon’s Precedents, a compendium of congressional traditions and practices published in 1935, acknowledges it.
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, says that while past efforts to get rid of the benefit haven’t taken off, it remains “a point worth debating.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Posey’s legislation will ever see debate. Introduced late last month, it has yet to attract a cosponsor.
With increased focus on the safety of members of Congress, one notable omission from Posey’s bill is that congressional family members who are killed in office would not be eligible to receive a gratuity. A spokesman for Posey says that members should avail themselves of outside insurance products that are available to the public.