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Watchdog questions $174G death benefit for millionaire senator's wife

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The late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ.Reuters

As D.C. lawmakers talk tough over a looming government shutdown, one item House members have not said much about is a six-figure “gift” they tucked into the latest spending bill. The little-noticed provision would pay the widow of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg – who was a millionaire -- $174,000 in tax-free funds. 

The payment is part of a time-honored practice of paying out death benefits to lawmakers' families. But it's caught the eye of government watchdogs who say it's time to put an end to that practice. 

Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, first noticed the payment to the widow of the late New Jersey Democratic senator. 

"How is this a top funding priority?" he asked. 

Schuman questioned why the House, which voted to cut $40 billion from food stamps over the next decade and is locked in a stand-off over de-funding ObamaCare, would so easily pony up thousands of dollars for this benefit payment. Not all lawmakers are independently wealthy, but Lautenberg was among the wealthiest. 

According to Roll Call’s 2012 annual survey of congressional wealth, which is based on 2011 financial disclosure reports, Lautenberg’s estimated net worth was $56.8 million. 

“The situation is even more galling when you think about the choice it represents,” Schuman wrote. “Congress just voted to cut food stamps for poor children. A shameful number were unwilling to support relief from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.”

Further, he warned that the payments embody an attitude that "places members of Congress above the public." 

The practice of paying a deceased lawmaker’s salary to his or her family has been around for a long time. 

A 1918 document, Cannon’s Precedents, which sets the precedents for the U.S. House of Representatives, calls the death gratuities a “long-established custom.” It is not known when the custom first originated. 

In this case, one year of Lautenberg’s salary goes to his widow Bonnie Englebardt, who lives in New York City.  

Section 134 of the appropriations bill passed by the House states: “Notwithstanding any other provisions of this joint resolution, there is appropriated for payment to Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, widow of Frank R. Lautenberg, late a Senator for New Jersey, $174,000.” 

The late New Jersey Democrat owed his political rise in part to his business success.  

He used the money he made at Automatic Data Processing, Inc., or ADP, to launch his political career.

Lautenberg was the fifth employee hired at ADP, which was founded under the name Automatic Payrolls, Inc., in 1949 by Henry and Joseph Taub.

Lautenberg spent the next 30 years going on to become the company’s CEO and see the company through phenomenal growth. Presently, the company has 57,000 employees, $10 billion in annual revenues and claims to pay one in six American workers.

If Lautenberg’s death gratuity is approved by the Senate, as expected, it would bring the total amount that Congress has given the families of deceased lawmakers to $2.6 million over the past decade.

Among other things, the money is supposed to help with funeral fees, the cost of erecting a monument and travel expenses for a delegation to attend a service. Federal law treats the payment as a gift, which means it’s tax free.

Not all lawmakers make the same amount.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the family of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who died Dec. 17, 2012, was given $193,400.  The family of Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., who died on Jan. 1, 2005, was gifted $162,100, while relatives of Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., who died on Oct. 6, 2007, were given $165,200.