A month after they voted to punish some corporate executives for taking hefty bonus payouts, members of the House of Representatives quietly gave their own staffers a new potential bonus by making even their top-earning aides eligible for taxpayer dollars to repay their student loans.
The change, which took effect in May, means House employees earning up to $168,411, or the top level, are now eligible for government-funded subsidies to help pay down their student loans.
House officials defend the change as a job-related benefit necessary to keep the government competitive in the hiring market - the same argument corporate chieftains used to defend their own pay scales.
“There’s still a tremendous demand for high-end Hill talent even in this current job market. Expanding eligibility for the benefit allows us to retain valued and seasoned personnel who might otherwise be lured away to more financially lucrative pursuits,” said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee.
The committee, which has jurisdiction over internal House employment, salaries and expenses, directed House officials to make the change.
But taxpayer advocacy groups said that straightforward salary increases - not new perks and bonuses - are the best way to attract and retain talent. Offering bonuses to some of the best-paid Capitol staffers just feeds into popular resentment toward Washington, said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
“It’s another example of the imperial Congress and setting themselves aside from the rest of the country,” Mr. Schatz said. “It goes along with the congressional jets, the executive jets. It goes along with the travel. It fits in with all the concerns about spending generally in Washington.”
Although widely used in the federal work force, the job-related perk of paying off an employee’s college bills is rarely offered in the private sector, employment analysts say.
The move to boost the income cap was made just a month after the House voted 328-93 in March to slap a 90 percent tax on bonuses for executives from companies that took bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The Senate never followed suit, and the bill didn’t become law. The salaries and dollar amounts involved in those bonuses were far higher than what’s at stake in the House program.
The House program is expected to cost $12.6 million this fiscal year. As of August, it was making payments for 2,251 staffers. The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, the branch of the House that administers the program, is unable to estimate how many of those staffers are taking part under the new, higher-income limits, spokesman Jeff Ventura said.
Mr. Ventura said that, with members of the House up for election every two years, job security is uncertain and the student loan program helps attract talent.
“We regard this benefit as a major job recruitment and retention tool,” he said. “Even in a bad job market, we compete with the private sector for the kind of talented employees government work today demands.”
The House program pays up to $10,000 a year, with a maximum lifetime benefit of $60,000. Staffers making any salary are now eligible, though their total compensation - including the loan repayment - cannot exceed the 2009 cap of $168,411. From 2008 through May of this year, the cap was $145,159.
Each representative decides which of his or her staffers can receive the benefit. The funds do not come out of each congressional office’s budget, but there is a cap on how much each office can spend on the repayments. That cap was also boosted by 75 percent in May.
Student loan repayments are not limited to the House. The Senate offers a far less generous program than the House, while many executive branch agencies offer a similar program.
The Senate income eligibility cap for its program is $146,500 this year, which is about $23,000 less than the maximum a staffer could make. The Senate caps lifetime payments at $40,000 - $20,000 less than the House.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of the Senate, who administers the program, said the program will cost $4.7 million this year. That’s up from $1 million in 2002, when the program began, but down from 2003, the peak year, when the Senate spent $6.8 million.
The spokeswoman would not give details about who participates in the program and referred questions to the committees with oversight over the program.
Executive branch agencies, meanwhile, provide an extensive annual accounting of their student loan benefit program, and it appears to be just as popular as the House program.
In 2008, federal agencies spent more than $51 million to repay loans for 6,879 employees, at an average benefit of $7,511. The 2008 figure is a 22 percent jump over the previous year.
Like House staff members, executive branch employees are limited to $10,000 per year and $60,000 over their lifetimes. The loan repayments are taxable.