The Spectacle Blog

A Congressional Perk You’ve Never Heard of: Death Gratuity

By on 9.25.13 | 2:16PM

Renowned 19th-century frontiersman Davey Crockett is perhaps best remembered today for his heroic exploits in the Texas Revolution, a war in which he gave his life at the Battle of the Alamo. However, another less-remembered anecdote from his legendary life has newfound relevance for today – the story which inspired Crockett’s speech “Not Yours to Give.”   

For background, at the time of then-Representative Crockett’s speech, Congress was debating appropriating funds to compensate the widow of a deceased Navy serviceman. Crockett’s impassioned address to Congress, appealing to the steadying hand of core principles in the face of grief, has become legend. In the speech, Crockett noted that while he had “much respect for the memory of the deceased,” Congress did “not have the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity,” and even going to far as to call the effort “corrupt.”

Fast-forward nearly two centuries, and Congress is yet again debating the appropriation of funds to the wife of another recently deceased American serviceman—the widow of former New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg. From Roll Call:

Among the various sections of the House-passed CR are 28 words that would pay $174,000 to the widow of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.

The death gratuity — a long-practiced, little-known, unofficial perk of office — has been a staple of congressional deaths.

Now, it is true that Congress has traditionally doled out a death gratuity equal to the member’s annual salary to the surviving spouse of deceased member. But at a time when our nation is facing unprecedented levels of debt and American families have yet to fully recover from the economic downturn, this practice needs to end. This is especially true in light of the fact the Sen. Lautenberg’s personal wealth was estimated at nearly $57 million dollars in 2011, rendering the payment an extravagant tax-free subsidy to an already wealthy family.

Unfortunately, this sort of action by Congress is hardly surprising. Remember, it was the Republican-controlled House that cut food stamp funding for the poor while supporting taxpayer-funded subsidies to rich farmers. And it’s the Democratic Party that is leading the charge to exempt Congress from Obamacare.

The story of the Crockett speech has been criticized as having embellished the real story. Even so, this parable (like many others) contains wisdom that can serve us well today – and that Congress would be wise to heed. Davey Crockett’s “Not Yours To Give” should serve as a lesson to today’s House members as they continue to avail themselves of our tax dollars even as they spend us into fiscal oblivion.

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