Raleigh, N.C. — As Congress wrangles over a budget and a possible halt to most federal government operations, members of congressional staffs not only don't face a potential furlough, they also can look forward to a hefty bonus in a few months.
Most staff members are considered "essential" employees and will continue to work through the shutdown, although some won't get paid for their time until a new federal budget is passed.
Still, WRAL Investigates found that bonuses are often built into the payroll for congressional staff members.
Thirteenth District Congressman Brad Miller, for instance, fashioned his budget to pay staff bonuses last year that topped 8 percent of their salaries, or an average of $4,800.
"That's a management tool, so we can run a more efficient office and motivate our employees to do well," said Miller, a four-term Democrat from Raleigh.
Miller has nine full-time staff members in Washington, D.C., and another nine in North Carolina to help attend to constituents' needs.
"Every fourth quarter is bonus time for congressional staff," said Jock Friedly, who runs LegiStorm, a nonprofit that tracks congressional pay.
LegiStorm found most lawmakers budget so they can give staff bonuses toward the end of the year.
"You don't see that, of course, in the rest of federal government, and you don't see that in much of the public sector, obviously," Friedly said.
Members of Congress have broad discretion on how to spend their assigned office budgets. Annual payrolls for members of North Carolina's congressional delegation range from a low of $775,000 for 5th District Congresswoman Virginia Foxx a high of more than $1.1 million for 7th District Congressman Mike McIntyre.
Many save the biggest chunk of their budgets for the end of the year to hand out bonuses.
Miller's staff bonuses top the list for North Carolina members of the U.S. House. His payroll increased by 50 percent, from $256,526, to $372,399, from the third to fourth quarter of 2010, according to LegiStorm.
"(It's) a lower salary during the year and then a bigger end-of-year bonus," Miller said. "When you're telling staff members what that bonus is going to be, you've got their attention."
Pay records show the average salary of Miller's staffers in 2010 was about $60,800. Those salaries have risen slightly in recent years.
The last pay raise for members of Congress was in 2009, when the minimum pay for lawmakers rose to $174,000.
Friedly said most congressional staff members aren't getting rich, especially considering the long hours they work, the education they bring to the job and the high cost of living in Washington.
"This is not a group of people who, as a group, is being overpaid. That's for sure," he said. "They also work very hard."