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Buffett's first debt donation match

January 18, 2012: 12:26 PM ET

Warren Buffett challenged Republicans in Congress to help pay down the federal debt with a promise to match. His first recruit -- welcomed gladly -- is Scott Rigell, a conservative from Virginia.

By Carol Loomis, senior editor-at-large

Scott Rigell

Rep. Scott Rigell

FORTUNE -- After Howard Buffett, a deeply conservative Republican whom his son Warren revered, was elected to the House of Representatives for three terms in the 1940s, Congress voted itself an annual pay raise from $10,000 to $12,500. Judging the raise unseemly, Howard Buffett refused to take it.

Today, Democrat Warren Buffett finds himself suddenly dealing with a freshman Republican Congressman whose strong principles inevitably -- and agreeably -- remind him of his father's. The legislator, 51, is Scott Rigell (pronounced RIDGE-ull) of Virginia Beach, Virginia, though he was formerly a resident of Florida, where he operated a Ford dealership in Titusville. Rigell ran for Congress in 2010 as the Republicans' establishment candidate, beating a Tea Party rival.

Rigell emerged last week on Fox News as the first (and so far, only) person to take up Buffett on his just-announced offer to a) match any contribution made by a Republican member of Congress to the Treasury to pay down debt and b) triple the match if the giver is Senator Mitch McConnell, a frequent critic of Buffett for wanting to raise tax rates on the rich. Buffett's offer was disclosed in an interview with Time, Fortune's sister publication.

A key point about Rigell is that he got to this issue before Buffett did. He had, on his own, moved in 2011 to give 15% of his Congressional salary to the Treasury for the very purpose of paying down debt. He acted, Rigell told Fox, to provide "leadership by example." This man is tough as well -- Howard Buffett would cheer! -- on governmental expenses broadly. For example, he'd like to see perks for members of Congress cut sharply and their pensions turned into 401k plans.

Rigell has strong wishes, too, about Buffett's matching offer, and he put them in a letter that reached Buffett in Omaha yesterday (read the letter here). Rigell said he would be making a 15% gift to the Treasury this year, but also hoped that Buffett would retroactively match his 2011 contribution. The amounts would be about $23,000 for 2011 (when some clerical errors resulted in the full 15% not being reached) and about $26,000 for 2012.

Buffett whipped an admiring letter back within the day (full letter below). He would indeed match both amounts, Buffett said, and was as well "heartened by both your contributions and your thoughts" -- particularly because they preceded Buffett's matching offer. To the Congressman's question about what documentation he should send to prove his payments, Buffett said don't bother: "Your word's good enough for me."

Buffett said he would send his matches to the Treasury around April 20th, waiting until then to see whether other members of Congress might join in. Buffett hopes, in fact, that an "intramural rivalry" between Republicans and Democrats might develop -- to see who can give the most.

That's the kind of Congressional rivalry, Buffett said, the American people would appreciate.

If the Congressman hasn't been in Omaha, he now has an invitation. Said Buffett, "If you are traveling near Omaha, I would enjoy getting together with you." That may not be what Rigell was expecting to hear from a Democrat, but conservative Congressmen who know firmly what they stand for definitely have a head start in the eyes of Buffett.

Fortune senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who wrote this article, is a long-time friend of Warren Buffett's and a shareholder in his company, Berkshire Hathaway.


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