Bonus deciphering sometimes requires delving into details
LegiStorm's recent examination of congressional bonuses continues generating widespread interest, but it helps to look more closely at the numbers to see if members are being as generous with bonuses as the numbers look at first.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) is a case in point. Her office contacted LegiStorm to point out the congresswoman did not give any fourth-quarter bonuses this past year, and a look at the raw salary numbers bears that out. However, in our chart the average salary for Tsongas' staff is shown to have risen 9.59% in the fourth quarter, and the total payroll increased $27,737. These numbers are also correct, which requires some explanation.
In the case of Tsongas' office, staff changes early in 2010 caused both the total and average salaries in the fourth quarter to look inflated over the previous three quarters, even though the numbers are generally flat between the third and fourth quarters. The matter is confused more by some faulty reporting of one top aide's employment dates in July. Official salary records suggest that Communications Director Michael Brownlie worked the whole month but made only $78 - barely $2 a day - before he took leave from the office. The faulty dates made it seem like he was getting a huge salary decrease which affects the average staff salary for the first three quarters.
The opposite problem can occur. One congressman was asked by a reporter why he paid no bonuses when others had. His reply was that he had, but the bonuses weren't paid until the beginning of January so the data is not yet available to the public.
Such are the hazards that can trip up any simplistic analysis of bonuses. Because most House offices do not separate bonuses from the rest of a staffer's salary and instead report only lump sum amounts for each quarter, we have attempted to isolate bonuses by comparing fourth-quarter pay to the average of the first three quarters, both in total payroll and staffers' average pay. With the latter figures, we attempted to control for differences in number of staff between offices and fluctuations throughout the year by finding the total number of staff days worked in each office to determine the average salaries. But obviously no method of calculation is perfect given the limits of the raw data.
Although the fourth-quarter rise in staff salaries is attributable to bonuses in most offices, occasionally the numbers in the fourth quarter can show an increase for other reasons. A staff change late in the year which replaces a lower-paid staffer with a higher-paid one, for example, will cause both the total payroll and the average salary to increase. Raises and overtime pay are also indistinguishable from bonuses in the House data. In the aggregate, a fourth quarter spike in salary payments is followed by a sharp dropoff in pay, so bonuses are clearly responsible for most of the jump, but that doesn't mean that it's such a simple story in each individual case.