After shutdown, many lawmakers gave to charity

At least 109 of 237 who pledged return of pay have donated

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U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, pledged last fall that she would donate 100 percent of her salary during the government shutdown to Shared Hope International, a Vancouver-based nonprofit.

The congresswoman donated $5,700 to the charity, spokesman Casey Bowman said in an email this week. Shared Hope International seeks to end sex trafficking and advocates for vulnerable women and children.

U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., both opted to keep their salaries during the shutdown.

— Eric Florip

WASHINGTON — From the very outset of the 16-day government shutdown last fall, members of Congress recognized its potential for political damage. So many of them, seeking to contain the possible fallout, pledged to give back some of their federal salaries earned while the government was not functioning.

At the time, there were questions about the sincerity and political expediency of the pledges and whether it was even possible for lawmakers to actually decline their pay.

Five months later, some answers are beginning to emerge.

At least 109 of the 237 lawmakers who pledged to return their cash have donated more than $465,000 to charity or back to government accounts to help pay down the federal deficit, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Veterans groups, crisis pregnancy centers and high school sports teams have all received donations from both Democrats and Republicans. As did Catholic and Jewish aid organizations, the Boy Scouts of America, groups helping Colorado flood victims and dozens of food banks.

A complete picture of which members actually kept their promise could be elusive, as lawmakers are not required to disclose charitable donations. But the House releases quarterly reports on members who return money to the Treasury, and that list will be released Friday for the period that included the shutdown.

The rest of the information came to light after The Washington Post asked each of the 237 members who said last fall that they planned to donate some of their salary in solidarity with the federal workers who were not being paid during the shutdown. About 90 of them did not return repeated requests for information in recent weeks.

The largest-known single donation came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who gave $10,000 to the Consortium of Catholic Academies, a nonprofit organization supporting inner-city Catholic school children in the Archdiocese of Washington. Feinstein ranks among the wealthiest members of Congress and is co-chair of an annual fundraising dinner for the organization.

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., donated to a Pittsburgh television station that buys Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., wrote checks to 48 charities across his district. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sent more than $9,000 to the University of Tennessee, while Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., distributed $5,000 to food banks in his state. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a breast cancer survivor, donated about $2,000 to a breast cancer awareness group called "Beer for Boobs."

The federal government also got in on the action. At least 13 lawmakers sent back more than $80,000 to the U.S. Treasury, including Reps. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. ($5,049) and Brad Schneider, D-Ill. ($5,476), Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del. ($6,098) and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. ($7,333.33).

Congressional watchdogs said they could not recall a similar instance when so many lawmakers donated so much money in response to a single event.

"I have never seen or heard of this kind of mass refund," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.

"This is the right thing for lawmakers to do, but they really were not doing it for the right reasons," Holman said. "The real reason is they wanted to avoid looking callous to America after being unable to govern."

The political motivation did not matter to Jo Poshard, who runs the Poshard Foundation for Abused Children, which helps pay for baby cribs, car seats, clothes and groceries for abused or disabled children in southern Illinois. The organization doesn't receive any state or federal funding, so Poshard said it was a relief in December when she received a check for $1,190.03.

"I can do a lot with $1,190," she said. "I can help a lot of kids."

The donation came from Rep. William Enyart, D-Ill., who wrote checks to Poshard's foundation, a seniors' center and a food pantry.

In the weeks after the shutdown, congressional approval plummeted to the single digits and has climbed back only slightly since then. Forty-six percent of Americans believe their representative deserves to return to Congress after the 2014 election, the lowest levels in polling since 1992.

Alan Abramson, a professor at George Mason University who tracks the nonprofit sector, said that the congressional donations mirrored what an unpopular celebrity might do to repair a damaged public image.

“I think members of Congress are looking for popular charities which are addressing an important need and that are safe,” he said. “They’re not going out on a limb by supporting Wounded Warriors as compared to if they’re supporting PETA or some other edgy charity.”

Dozens of members, including House Speaker John Boehner , R-Ohio, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said they would only part with their earnings if federal workers and congressional staffers weren’t retroactively paid for time served during the impasse. Congress eventually voted to pay those workers.

Of the 90 lawmakers who didn’t respond, at least 60 were House and Senate Republicans, including Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. All three actively supported shutting down the government if a spending agreement couldn’t be reached with the White House. Bachmann called the shutdown “exactly what we wanted.”

Lee initially told Utah reporters that he would be paid in full after the shutdown, but later said he would make donations. Aides ignored recent questions about whether he did so.

But another GOP face of the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., followed through on his promise. He donated $7,627.40, equal to 16 days of take-home pay, to YES Prep, a Houston charter school system. School officials said that the senator and his wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, a Goldman Sachs executive, have been “longtime financial contributors.”

Lawmakers earn $174,000 annually and haven’t voted for a pay raise since 2009. Leaders of the House and Senate earn slightly more. But for the first time ever, most members of Congress are worth at least $1 million annually, according to a recent analysis. Some members, including Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Jared Polis, D-Conn., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are so wealthy that they donate their entire salaries to charity or family foundations.

Most organizations contacted in recent weeks declined to confirm individual donations, citing a policy of not discussing individual donors, so most details about donations were provided by congressional offices.

Overall, lawmakers sent dozens of donations to organizations helping the nation’s military veterans.

The largest single beneficiary was the Wounded Warrior Project, a national program that assists military service members and veterans through dozens of programs. The group received more than $30,700 from 10 members of Congress, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., according to The Post’s tally.

Amanda Jekowsky, a WWP spokeswoman, said that her group appreciated the donations, but that “it is the fundamental responsibility of the government to disburse benefits payments to the brave men and women who served and sacrificed for this nation, a commitment that was nearly jeopardized during the government shutdown.”

Five lawmakers also donated to the Honor Flight Network, which helps transport military veterans to Washington to visit national war memorials. And four lawmakers sent checks to local chapters of the Fisher House Foundation, which helps house military families when a loved one is seeking medical treatment at major military or Veterans Affairs hospital. Dozens of other lawmakers donated to other local veterans groups.

House ethics experts advised some offices not to disclose information on charitable donations, saying that doing so could be perceived as formal endorsements of the organizations. But most members ignored the advice.

After writing a check for $5,124.09 to the U.S. Treasury, Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., posted a picture of his check on Twitter: “With end of govshutdown, just sent personal check for 16 days of my salary, deducting taxes, to USTreasury,” he said. Via Facebook, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said that he was donating $5,000 to eight different organizations that “are of particular importance to me and fulfill a variety of worthwhile missions.”

After announcing plans to suspend his pay in a press release, Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., sent an undisclosed amount to the Father Fred Foundation, in Traverse City, Mich. The group helps feed and clothe 125 to 200 low-income families four days a week.

Rosemary Hagan, executive director of the group, said she only received word of Benishek’s donation from reporters.

“Congress holds the responsibility for the shutdown,” she said. “A personal response as a result of ⅛the shutdown3/8 would be a sign of hope that compassion still resides in the hearts of our legislators, and perhaps that personal response of compassion will open greater dialogue, cooperation and action within Congress on behalf of the poor in our nation.”