WASHINGTON — The $1.1 trillion stopgap spending resolution being debated by Congress also includes a line item to benefit the widow of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Section 135 of the bill gives a one-time payment to Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg of $174,000, which is equivalent to a year's salary for a senator.
The widow's payments are part of a long-standing and routine practice of Congress. But this payment is drawing scrutiny because of Lautenberg's wealth: His estimated net worth was at least $56.8 million in 2012, making him the eighth-wealthiest member of Congress, according to Roll Call.
"It should never be happening. This is more deeply ironic given the time that we're in and Sen. Lautenberg's wealth," said Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-profit congressional watchdog. "This is not to pick on Sen. Lautenberg's family in any way. They're grieving. But when the government is preaching austerity — and about to shut down the government even — no one even blinks about sending $174,000."
The provision was first included in the continuing resolution passed by the House last week, the first new spending bill to pass since Lautenberg's death. The amended resolution being debated in the Senate retains the payment. By law, Congress must pass a new spending measure by next Monday or large parts of the federal government will shut down.
Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, died June 30 at age 89. He was the CEO of Automated Data Processing, a payroll management company, before he was first elected to the Senate in 1982. He married Bonnie Englebardt in 2003.
"I just learned about this recently in the news," Bonnie Lautenberg told USA TODAY Thursday. "I don't want to comment on it until I make some decisions about how to handle this. I didn't even know I was getting this money."
Congress has paid the funeral expenses of members who die in office since the 19th century, according to the Congressional Research Service. Today, the practice of inserting widow's payments into the next appropriation bill is so routine it's covered in the official Senate handbook.
Although most other federal spending is subject to across-the-board cuts under what's become known as "sequestration," Congress specifically exempted "payments to widows and heirs of deceased Members of Congress" under the 2011 budget deal that avoided a government shutdown.
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