Congressional salaries are funded through "a permanent appropriations account" established in 1981, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Gramm-Rudman says that any individual employee's salary that is set by law, such as standard federal pay scales, cannot be cut because of a sequester. But that provision does not explain why a whole class of people, such as members of Congress, couldn't see an across-the-board pay reduction. The OMB official said Gramm-Rudman simply doesn't apply to lawmakers' salaries at all because of the specific way they are funded.
Under Gramm-Rudman, officials are instructed to use furloughs instead of cutting public employees' pay, and then only as a last resort. But a furlough for lawmakers isn't in the offing — as much as that might be relished by the large share of Americans who say they hold Congress in ill regard. A congressional furlough could raise constitutional questions, which would be decided by a court only if a lawmaker sued the government for lack of pay.
Just the opposite has been happening in recent months with lawmakers of both parties rushing to propose bills cutting their own pay, despite the fact that such a pay reduction is clearly prohibited by the 27th Amendment.
Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bill Nelson of Florida have introduced one of the latest, which would reduce congressional salaries if federal employees are furloughed.
"This is an obvious step to hold Congress accountable for the job we need to get done," McCaskill said in a statement announcing the legislation.
A user on the liberal website MoveOn.org launched an online petition calling on lawmakers to cut their salaries for future sessions of Congress if they impose furloughs on workers. The site has collected 342,440 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Stan Collender, a leading expert on federal fiscal matters and formerly a longtime aide on the House and Senate budget committees, said the fate of lawmaker salaries in the sequester falls into a gray area and the fact they're left untouched is likely the result of "some sort of internal, below-the-radar decision."
"Something's not being said here," Collender said.