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EDITORIAL: Bonuses for congressional staff

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In debates all year long and in legislation passed just before the August recess, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have made one thing clear -- companies taking federal bailout money and other emergency aid shouldn't be doling out executive bonuses. Their point is that failure shouldn't be rewarded, especially on the taxpayer dime. That's a principle Speaker Nancy Pelosi should take to heart in running her own House.

While denunciations of corporate jets, lavish parties and million-dollar bonuses were all the rage on the House floor, Mrs. Pelosi and her cohorts were quietly passing out bonuses even as they failed to deliver on the key campaign promises that had brought them to power. Earlier this summer, the House put in place its own round of lavish bonuses for the chamber's highest-paid employees. As reported exclusively in The Washington Times yesterday, the most generously compensated House employees -- making $145,159 to $168,411 -- became eligible for a college repayment benefit worth up to $60,000. This bonus was instituted with little fanfare.

It's too easy to simply denounce the move as yet another example of the nanny party's penchant for living by the rule "Do as I say, not as I do." On this rare day, the official explanation has some shade of truth to it. Although there is less competition in today's sagging economy, many experienced staffers could get more money in the private sector and, in some cases, several times what they make working for government. Members of Congress do need some flexibility to retain the best staffers, who otherwise might be lured away by businesses or the shadow government of well-paid lobbyists.

That said, the speaker and her fellow Democrats might want to take a break from denouncing Wall Street's "culture of unrestrained self-indulgence" while indulging in bonuses for their own people during a recession. Sweetening the pot for political staff legitimately raises eyebrows while Democratic leaders are trying to regulate which companies can own a corporate jet and how much insurance companies can spend on entertainment and travel for their employees.

It's not as if we're talking about high performers. House Democrats took control in the 2006 elections in part on Mrs. Pelosi's promises to rein in spending and end the supposed Republican culture of corruption by "break[ing] the link between lobbyists and legislation." To call such promises unfulfilled -- when the deficit numbers run in the trillions and the White House promotes health reform by openly making deals with industry lobbyists -- is to flagrantly understate their nonperformance.

Even in this moneyed town, there are plenty of professionals who are willing to work for 150 grand. Congress pays its best employees $80 an hour. That's hardly chicken feed. In fact, it's 11 times the newly raised minimum wage. Perhaps Mrs. Pelosi and the Democratic Caucus should take the remaining days of the August recess to reflect on how their staff salaries look to the world outside the Beltway.

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