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Absence must make the congressman grow richer

Laws, it seems, are fine for the hoi polloi. But when it comes to Congress - Ground Zero for incessant bleating about "the rule of law" - some codes are mere formalities to be ignored.

Take the pesky "No work, no pay" law. For you legal eagles, that's in 2 U.S. Code Section 39.

The 1856 law is both sensible and straightforward: If a member of Congress is absent for reasons other than official business or personal or family illness, he will be docked one day of salary for every day missed.

In other words, to get paid, you have to come to work. Makes sense in a business where, in order to pass legislation, you actually have to show up and vote on it.

But in our age of perpetual campaigns, more politicians are going AWOL from their day jobs in order to seek better ones. It's the political equivalent of leaving a coat draped over the choicest seats in the movie theater.

Instead of resigning to seek higher office, or waiting until their terms are finished, these politicians are drawing their full paychecks - $158,100 last year - for work missed in Washington while pressing flesh elsewhere.

Not only is it unethical to get paid while denying congressional representation to constituents, it's also -

how to put this delicately? - illegal.

But clever senators are trying to fix that stumbling block, not by following the law, but by exempting themselves from it.

Tucked away in the Senate's legislative branch spending bill is a provision to relieve senators from the annoying obligations of a law most regard as a mere formality. Or as Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, puts it: "Their view is, if you can't join the law, beat it."

No wonder. Turns out, some real stars in the political stratosphere appear to have run afoul of this particular rule and kept the unearned dough.

According to NTU, a nonpartisan advocacy group that scrutinizes government spending, Sen. John Kerry, erstwhile Democratic presidential contender and gazillionaire, missed 146 days of work in 2003 and 2004, and was overpaid $91,000; that's chump change when you have access to Teresa's PIN number.

Other reprobates: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who skipped 54 percent of all Senate votes in 2003 and was overpaid $39,000. And former Sen. John Edwards, slammed last year by Vice President Dick Cheney for playing hooky from the Senate, missed every single vote during July, September and October of 2004. That netted him $64,000.

Because of their wide-open field in the presidential race, Democrats were the worst offenders of the past two years. But some Republicans gave them - pardon the pun - a run for their money.

Former Republican congressman Jim DeMint missed 37 days of work in the House while campaigning for a South Carolina Senate seat; he received $23,000 he didn't earn. Ditto for Pennsylvania's Rep. Patrick Toomey, AWOL for 19 days; that's $12,000.

No such rule bound President Bush; in fact, Air Force One regularly doubled as his campaign plane.

Of course, $91,000 here and $12,000 there amount to little more than budget dust. But when the $8 trillion federal debt means every man, woman and child is in hock for $26,000, every penny counts.

The law is a formality only in the offenders' minds. Your average armed robber or car thief probably uses a similar rationalization. The difference is, unlike politicians, they don't have the power to change inconvenient laws.

Pity poor House members, who didn't think to include a similar provision in their legislative spending bill. If lawmakers have an ounce of shame in their bones, they'll block the repeal attempt from the final version.

But the House was surely cheered by its nice automatic pay raise two weeks ago. After all, it's hard work grip-and-grinning with school groups, refilling the inkwell on the Autopen and mailing form letters to constituents.

Yes, laws are for the little people. Apparently, belt-tightening and shared sacrifices are too.

Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Readers may write to her at The Virginian-Pilot, 150 West Brambleton Avenue, Norfolk, Va. 23510, or send her e-mail at bronwyn.chester@pilotonline.com.