Spanish deputies: money for nothing and the checks for free?

Congress members and senators get compensation for interim period before the new legislature convenes, but some say the amount is excessive and unethical

A view of Spanish Congress.
A view of Spanish Congress.Jaime Villanueva (EL PAÍS)

The shortest term in the history of Spanish Congress lasted all of 111 days. It began on January 13, shortly after the general election of December 20, 2015, and ended on May 3, after a fragmented parliament failed to reach consensus on who should be the next prime minister.

But the sitting deputies and senators continued to receive a paycheck for two more months. Known popularly as el paro de sus señorías (Their Honors’ unemployment benefit), this outlay represented €3.5 million of taxpayers’ money, according to EL PAÍS’ calculations.

This money, officially termed “transition compensation,” is not automatically awarded and must be applied for. Only 26 deputies and 13 senators turned down the option, representing 11.4% of the lower and 6.7% of the upper chamber, respectively.

Bonuses and perks

E.G.S.

In May and June, 181 senators earned €8,345 each while 203 deputies made an average of €10,000 – the same as their regular working salary, even though they are not in Madrid and not working on any committees during this interim period. The Senate is more transparent than Congress about these little-known payments.

While a deputy’s basic salary is gross €2,813 a month, there are tax-free bonuses for travel and accommodation. Deputies representing the Madrid region receive €871, and those from other regions get €1,824. This is a particularly controversial outlay, as even deputies with homes in Madrid may apply for it. Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro, who owns three homes in the capital according to his own asset statement, is an example.

And then there are additional payments for sitting on the board of spokespeople, on the governing board, and on any one of myriad congressional committees. Most deputies avail themselves of one of these extras, bringing their average monthly salary to around €5,600, with 14 yearly payments.

Deputies were also allowed to keep using their complimentary iPads and iPhones, and their free internet connections at home courtesy of Congress.

This type of compensation was introduced in 2006 to make up for the fact that members of parliament, not being company employees, do not have the right to regular unemployment benefits. In practice, however, it has been in place since 2000.

“Because of job incompatibility regulations, many [members] cannot work and would have no income for two months,” said sources at the Senate.

“The point is for deputies to have income during the [election] campaign so they will not take up their old jobs again, then drop them once they are back in,” said another source in Congress.

But the practice has been criticized by some political parties and individual deputies. Their problem is not so much with the notion of compensation as with the amount that is being doled out, since there is a whole set of bonus payments for non-existent parliamentary activity. This has led to accusations of unethical behavior.

“Making money for being a member of committees that have already been dissolved is questionable,” said one Socialist source.

Odón Elorza, former mayor of San Sebastián and a Socialist deputy for two terms, is a vocal critic.

“It does not seem ethical to charge for accommodation expenses when the deputies [who live elsewhere and need to travel to the capital] are not even in Madrid,” he says.

Elorza, who has returned part of his own assignment – it took him weeks to do so because nobody had ever tried to return money before, and there was no established protocol for it – proposed that all Socialist deputies return these bonuses and keep only the core amount meant to cover their unemployed period.

Deputies were also allowed to keep using their complimentary iPads and iPhones, and their free internet connections at home courtesy of Congress

Barring that, he suggested donating the bonuses to a non-profit. Elorza says that his suggestion created an uncomfortable situation, and that he was asked to stop insisting.

“We don’t deserve it”

Íñigo Alli Martínez, of the Navarrese group UPN, is one of the 26 deputies who gave up on their checks altogether.

“I did it for a simple reason: we don’t deserve it,” he says.

David Bravo, of Podemos, turned it down as well. “After the term ended I went back to my job as a lawyer,” he explains, adding that he thinks it is logical for members of parliament to earn something between terms. “But the amount seems clearly excessive to me.”

A spokesperson for the Popular Party (PP) said that it “respects the decision of the chamber and the individual decisions of deputies.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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