– Former U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack awarded his staff some of the largest salary increases in Congress last year as he left office.

For the first three quarters of 2012, the Minnesota Republican’s staff payroll averaged a little over $197,000. In the final three months of the year, it shot up to $354,000, an 80 percent increase.

Measured another way, the average three-month salary for full-time staff in Cravaack’s office rose 93 percent, from $12,269 to $23,722, in the fourth quarter of the year, with most of the increases coming in November — when he lost his re-election bid — according to an organization that tracks congressional pay. Five staff members saw their salaries at least double and Cravaack boosted the pay of another six staffers by more than 30 percent in November, congressional records show.

“[Cravaack] was quite generous,” said Garrett Snedeker, an editor at LegiStorm, a nonpartisan watchdog group that says it does not accept funding from political organizations.

The average salary hike in Cravaack’s office during the last quarter of 2012 was the third-highest percentage increase in Congress, ­Snedeker said.

Cravaack defended the pay increases, saying he wanted to help staff members who would have to find new jobs after he lost his re-election bid to Democrat Rick Nolan in November.

“At the end of the year, I maxed out everybody because I had no idea how long these guys would be out of work,” Cravaack said. According to the office of the Chief Administrative Officer, congressional political aides do not qualify for unemployment benefits.

For decades, departing members of Congress have awarded large bonuses and salary increases to longtime staff, said Bill Allison, of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government transparency group.

Cravaack’s decision is uncommon, Allison and Snedeker said, because the salary increases granted are of a magnitude typically awarded by senior members of Congress.

“[Cravaack’s staff] almost made a meteoric rise over his term to collecting these salaries,” Snedeker said, “... which put them in the type of salary range you would think of very senior staffers in Congress earning.”

During 2011, his first year in office, Cravaack had the smallest payroll among Minnesota’s eight U.S. House offices.

Last year, his $957,400 payroll ranked third-highest, trailing only Democratic U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, who spent more than $1 million on staff.

Cravaack campaigned on a message of careful stewardship of the public’s money, a message that he said he adhered to for most of his one term in Congress.

But when he lost re-election, he said, “I wanted to make sure that I took care of my people. I wanted to make sure they had money for their rent, money for their bills, while they looked for employment.”

‘It’s not his money’

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based fiscal watchdog group, said: “It’s not his money to say, ‘I’m going to help my people.’ This is public service and there is always the risk that someone who works for a member of Congress could be out of a job. ... That’s part of the deal that comes along with working on Capitol Hill.”

Despite awarding the larger-than-average pay increases, Cravaack said he still returned between $30,000 and $35,000 of his office allowance. That’s common practice in Minnesota. Congressional records indicate that the state’s congressional offices have often returned tens of thousands of dollars to the U.S. House or Treasury.

Each House of Representatives office gets an annual expense budget based on factors that include the distance the member’s district is from Washington and the cost of in-district office space. In 2012, office budgets for Minnesota’s House members ranged from $1.335 million to $1.385 million, with upward of 80 percent spent on staff.

When money remains, many congressional offices hand out year-end bonuses and salary increases, even if the member of Congress isn’t leaving. Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack’s predecessor in the state’s Eighth District, said he regularly did so during his 30-plus years in Congress.

“We did that each year ... depending on how much we had remaining in our annual budget,” Oberstar said.

Other reasons payroll can increase include staff shifting to different roles and pay levels, departing workers who cash out accrued leave and congressional staffers returning to the Capitol after working on campaigns. Payroll in congressional offices can increase in the final quarter of the year, said Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff.

The largest increases still often happen when a member leaves Congress.

“Members don’t exactly announce this as they leave,” Schatz said.

During his last three months in office in 2010, Oberstar paid out more than $437,000 in salaries, a figure that topped his previous high-water mark by more than $75,000.

Things have changed. Since 2010, congressional budgets have been slashed by almost 20 percent.

During that final year, when Oberstar served as chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, he spent more than $1.36 million on staff. That’s only slightly less than the $1.385 million Cravaack had to cover all office expenses in 2012, including travel costs, supplies, rent and staff salaries.

“What we actually paid on an annual basis versus what he paid his staff is very different,” Cravaack said.

Of the 20 House offices with the heftiest salary increases at the end of 2012, nearly all were members who retired or lost elections. Retiring New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman had a 100.8 percent payroll increase from the first to the fourth quarter of 2012, the highest in Congress. Todd Akin of Missouri, Cravaack and Allen West of Florida, all Republicans, rounded out the top four. (Akin ran for a Senate seat and lost, while Cravaack and West failed in re-election attempts.)

“I’m sure there are some people who don’t do this,” Allison said. But “unless you have some strong aversion to spending public money, most members of Congress will do this to some extent when they’re leaving.”


Star Tribune correspondent Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.