UPDATED: 6 p.m. CT, Dec. 11, 2011
By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
The veteran congressional staffer’s salary may seem like a small fortune to the average Wisconsin worker, with a household income south of $50,000 a year, but Gebhardt said she earns her pay.
“For someone who has 28 years in this position, that’s not out of norm for people with experience,” she said. “It’s Washington, D.C.”
While Gebhardt’s salary is near the maximum end of the top congressional staffer pay, she is among hundreds of people serving representatives and senators who are posting six-figure salaries, including several among Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, according to a Wisconsin Reporter review of data.
'No average day'
Gebhardt’s job is harried, not for the faint of heart.
She’s the overseer of long-serving Petri’s congressional operations, in charge of district and D.C. staff, leading legislative issues, assisting the congressman with his work as House Aviation Subcommittee chairman. Gebhardt does the hiring and firing, directs the office’s budget and advises the lawmaker on daily events and meetings.
“There is no average day,” she told Wisconsin Reporter on Friday. Gebhardt said her a recent day included handling about 10 meetings, combing over the details of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act bill, taking multiple phone calls from constituents and working on the congressman’s newsletter.
“It’s very hectic,” she said of the job she’s held for more than a decade. “You go from one issue to another.”
Still, Gebhardt pulls in about $6,000 less than her boss’ $174,000, the set annual salary for members of Congress — members many Americans say are overpaid.
Wisconsin Reporter’s review of congressional office budgets, drawn from a database produced by for-profit congressional transparency website LegiStorm, shows the majority of Wisconsin’s 10-member congressional delegation boasts staff budgets exceeding $1 million.
Petri’s office, thanks to taxpayers, spent $1,094,612 on staff salaries in 2010, according to LegiStorm's database. The chief of staff position, as it is in many congressional offices, is the highest-paid post.
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team and multimillionaire senior senator, was the big spender of the lot, with a staff payroll of $2,658,967 in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30.
Senators' offices include many more staff members than the cap of 18 full-time employees for House members — with exceptions having as many as four other employees — but Kohl’s staff of more than 50 included at least five employees earning six-figure salaries.
Highest-paid on the list was Kohl’s scheduler, Arlene Branca, who earned $159,333.22. The six-figure earners also included JoAnne Anton, who made $131,499.84 as Kohl’s state director.
Anton also received a gift of $10,000 from Kohl, as did her two children — a gift Jock Friedly, president and founder of LegiStorm said has yet to be explained by the senator or his staff. Anton did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
“This is a pretty unusual practice for members of Congress to do this,” he said, but not illegal.
U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, of the iconic American political family, used to reward his staff richly, Friedly said. Key staff would receive bonuses from other sources, such as the Kennedy campaign fund, building a loyal staff, the transparency expert said.
There are limits on congressional staff pay, however.
In the House, besides those members on standing committees, maximum pay for staff is set at $168,411 for staff.
Employees may earn up to approximately $26,000 in outside income, too.
The average congressional office payroll was $1,007,560, according to LegiStorm.
Andrew Speth, Ryan’s chief of staff, earned more than $140,000 last year. Speth was among several staff members from the Wisconsin delegation who did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter. Petri’s chief of staff, Gebhardt, in fact, was the only staffer who spoke to Wisconsin Reporter.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-2nd Congressional District, a candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Kohl, paid out $1,017,564 in staff wages to 19 staff members in 2010. Her chief of staff, Bill Murat, earned $116,273.38 through September. The position paid $153,604.53 last year.
But the new U.S. Reps. Reid Ribble, R-8th Congressional District, and Sean Duffy, R-7th Congressional District, appear to be on pace to keep their budgets below $900,000. Ribble, in the first nine months of the year, recorded office payroll of $593,495, according to LegiStorm, while Duffy’s payroll was $567,303 during the same period.
Duffy’s chief Brandon Moody earned $65,533.34 through September.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-3rd Congressional District, paid out $901,448 in staff salaries last year, and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-4th Congressional District, recorded total salaries at $1,029,055 for her 21 staff members.
Drawbacks and rewards
When LegiStorm launched in 2006, Friedly said 400 congressional staff members made $150,000 or more. He said that number has risen since.
But there are good reasons for the six-figure pay, Friedly said.
Washington, D.C., is an expensive place to live and, by comparison, top-tier staffers, many with law degrees, earn considerably less than capital attorneys, and much less than lobbyists, he said.
“There’s no question it looks like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money,” the LegiStorm founder said. “But these are people who work extremely long days, and they can be very brutal days, on a pretty steady basis.”
There are plenty of perks, too. Staffers are eligible for the federal employee health insurance plan, a benefit Friedly said most Americans would envy. They do get downtime out of session, and they get to meet some of the most fascinating and famous people in the world, Friedly said.
“I don’t know how to weigh all of those things, but it is not as simple as a lot of constituents see it,” he said.
And there are plenty of people, like Kohl staff assistant Reilly Pruitt, who are making less than $25,000 a year in a costly town.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the wrong political party affiliation for U.S. Rep. Tom Petri. He is a Republican.