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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Financial info for NH congressional staffers hard to acquire

If you’re looking for signs of bipartisan unanimity in a fractured Congress, just ask to see the salaries of congressional staffers.

Since December, The Telegraph has repeatedly requested a list of salaries of the roughly 100 people working for New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators and two congressmen.

Whether dealing with Republicans or Democrats, in the House or Senate, the response has been the same: almost complete silence, including a total of 14 unreturned phone calls to the four offices in a single week.

On the occasions someone has been reached, The Telegraph has been told it is possible to figure out how much the offices paid to staffers in recent months – which isn’t exactly salaries, but is close.

Under a complicated system that has been evolving for decades and that differs between the House and Senate, the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate gather detailed information about expenditures by all members of Congress, including how much is paid to each staffer.

The Senate has begun posting it online in six-month chunks; the House reports quarterly data, but it isn’t online.

On Feb. 3, Jonathan Lipman, communications director for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote in an email that the only way to report salaries is what is included in the Senate and House disbursement reports.

The letter was co-signed by the spokesman for Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, as well as those for Republican Congressmen Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass.

“This information in any other format would render it unofficial and potentially inconsistent with that of other offices,” Lipman wrote. “We want New Hampshire citizens to have the most accurate information possible, which is only contained within the official Senate and House reports.”

In an interview Thursday, Shaheen also referred to the disbursement reports.

“The best information about disbursements is what’s available online,” Shaheen said. “If you look at the data, you can get a pretty good sense of what someone’s going to make over the year.”

Still unknown is whether the offices have established salaries for what their staffers are going to earn this year and why they aren’t available publicly.

Compiling and adding the amounts paid over various periods, you can figure out the amount of money that has been paid to each staffer over a year’s period. The sums can include salary, hourly pay, overtime and bonus payments.

Reimbursements for mileage, cellphones and the like aren’t included.

One full year of personnel payments exist only for Shaheen’s office. The three GOP congressional offices haven’t generated a full year’s worth of reports. Without similar data, no real comparisons can made.

The reports don’t reflect whether a staffer received pay from multiple offices, as is sometimes the case, or differentiate the type of pay, such as overtime for a police officer, for example.

Furthermore, the looking-back method of reporting doesn’t address the wages of newly hired employees who may be offered overly generous or too-meager compensation packages compared with peers.

The advocacy group LegiStorm cautions that because of these limitations, “Annual salaries must be calculated with great caution” from the data.

Why won’t congressional offices simply release lists of salaries of their public employees? That is what’s done, for example, by the city of Nashua in response to annual requests from The Telegraph, or state agencies in response to many media requests.

Salaries allow for people to compare sums spent for similar jobs by different public bodies.

As the state Supreme Court noted in a 2010 ruling about the Local Government Center, which unsuccessfully objected to releasing its salaries:

“Public access to specific salary information gives direct insight into the operations of the public body by enabling scrutiny of the wages paid for particular job titles. Public scrutiny can expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism. … In short, knowing how a public body is spending taxpayer money in conducting public business is essential to the transparency of government.”

Perhaps congressional offices don’t release wages because they don’t have to. New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law says salaries of public officials, including staffers, are public documents. State law doesn’t extend to federal offices; they would be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

Perhaps, said Daimon Eklund, an editor at LegiStorm, the congressional offices don’t release the information because they’ve already done the work of gathering and disseminating the detailed expense records.

“Every office is required to report everything they spend on the Hill, and already make that public, so maybe they don’t see why they have to do it again in that form,” Eklund speculated.

He noted that salary lists also can be misinterpreted – if, for example, a person leaves halfway through the year and a replacement is hired (not uncommon; there’s a lot of turnover in congressional staffs), it could look like two people get the full salary of a single position.

Washington is understandably sensitive about public reaction to salaries in this era of government-cutting.

There’s another possibility: Comparing salaries to actual expenditures allows for the calculation of bonuses, a topic that’s even more sensitive than salaries at the moment.

LegiStorm was reduced to comparing expenditures by quarter for all 435 members of the House of Representatives to even estimate congressional staff bonuses.

Whatever the reason, Eklund said people in Washington are used to dealing with past expenditures rather than salaries.

“I think I’ve only had one other reporter, from Chicago, ask for them,” Eklund said. “I guess we’re not in the habit.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.