Sen. Robert Byrd's Final Piece of Pork

When the longest-serving senator, Robert Byrd, passed away in June, he was part of one of the most lucrative benefit plans in government, or in the country. Sen. Byrd was vested in his benefits before 1984, when federal workers, including members of Congress, began participating in Social Security. He had a pension, a retirement plan and likely a life insurance policy through the federal government.

He was a wealthy man at his death at 89 years old. His last financial disclosure had no liabilities and at least $600,000 in assets. His wife was deceased and his children and grandchildren are adults, yet the Senate voted to give him a “gratuity” of another year’s salary amounting to $193,000.

Before you cry foul, it has been a practice for most of the history of the U. S. Senate and House to pay a “gratuity” or death benefit to senators or congressmen who die in office.

The first record of payment was in 1826, to the family of Sen. John Gilliard of South Carolina. He was a pauper and his funeral was paid for with public funds and he was buried in the Congressional Cemetery.

However, at that time, there was no salary to be senator, only a per diem. There were no benefits, pensions or thrift incentive plans. However, I would have said if I were alive at the time, “Why are you spending public money on the burial of a senator. Take up a collection, but don’t spend public money.”

What is even worse is this provision for Byrd’s payment was tucked in to this “must pass” spending bill the Senate passed before they headed out of town for the elections.

Politico reports that in the Senate handbook, it says when a senator dies in office, “in the next appropriations bill, an item will be inserted for a gratuity to be paid to the widow(er) or other next- of-kin, in the amount of one-year’s compensation.”

So the bill will allow for the $193,000 to be paid in equal shares to the senator’s two children and five grandchildren.

This is not a partisan thing. It has been the practice of the House and the Senate and of both parties to give this gratuity. As recently as 2007, the families of Sen. Craig Thomas (R.-Wyo.) and Representative Paul Gillmor (R.-Ohio) each received a gratuity equal to one year’s salary, $165,200.

I say again, “If the members of the House or Senate want to do something in remembrance of a colleague who dies in office, take up a collection among the members and give it to the family. Don’t use public funds. It’s about $2,000 per senator to give the benefit and it’s a real deal in the House at about $400 bucks per member.

Why should a fully vested member of Congress get anything other than what is due him through the benefits that the people of the United States give him as a federal employee. Members got a $6 a day per diem in the first Congress; they are a far cry from that today. These members have become the elites of this society, a governing class and this gratuity is just one example of THEM thinking they are better than US.

To make matters worse, we’ve been funding the funerals and giving gratuities to members of Congress since the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1909 that we paid a death benefit to our fallen soldiers of war. Currently there is a death benefit the government provides and there is an additional death benefit the soldier can buy for a nominal amount.

This is all about transparency. The Constitution allows the Senate and the House to set their own rules for everything from staff to “gratuity” payments, so it’s constitutional to do this. However, is it right? I think not.

In the 9th District of Georgia Special Election, now Congressman Tom Graves was asked if he supported term limits. He said he did but that there needed to be term limits on bureaucrats, too. In the final analysis, the bureaucrats implement legislation and have a great amount of power. I think he has a point there. I would take it one step further. We need an up and down review of the rules of Congress.

Appropriating any of the people’s money to give a payment to the family of a senator or congressman who has assets, is a waste of the people’s money.  The Byrd family doesn’t need that money, but I bet there are plenty of families in West Virginia where that amount of money would be life changing.

I could quip it’s appropriate the “King of Pork,” Robert Byrd, would get the last laugh with one final appropriation in his name, but I won’t do that. It begs an attitude this it is their money to spend and that is what has voters angry and energized all over America. It’s our money.
The Congress should not spend one nickel more than it needs to. If a “gratuity” should be paid, then let the members open up their checkbooks and ante up.