A pay raise for Congress is justified. Democrats were wrong to cave on giving one.

Legislators advocating for more support for American workers should start with helping the hardworking aides that keep the Capitol running.
Image: House staffers
Staffers line the aisle during a House Oversight and Reform Committee session on April 2, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
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By David Mark

It’s a Democratic talking point that the government needs to be doing more to boost stagnating wages and make sure that everyone shares in the booming economy. But the party’s leaders in the House of Representatives are letting politics keep them from putting their money where their mouths are and giving raises to the one group of people whose paychecks they control: their staff.

It’s been 10 lean years since Congress passed a budget increasing the amount available for staff salaries, and their median pay is currently $54,640, less than a third of what their bosses make. Staffers rarely go on C-SPAN, have their photos in news stories or are otherwise visible to the public. Yet, they’re the ones who actually write the legislation that lawmakers yammer on about on television, draft amendments to bills and, most importantly, deal with constituent problems back home.

Members of Congress get to decide each year whether to take the pay raise they have coming to them. Staffers get no such choice.

A 1989 law ties staffers’ salaries to what members of Congress earn. So when representatives don’t get a bump, neither do they. That’s a problem because members’ desire to avoid the poor politics of voting themselves raises means they are holding their staff hostage to bad optics too.

Which makes the decision of House Democratic leaders to scuttle a proposed congressional pay raise in the budget bill set to be voted on Thursday particularly disappointing, if not terribly surprising.

The move had originally been championed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and his lieutenants, who felt that after a decade of self-restraint, it was time for what’s known in Washington as a cost-of-living adjustment. But then, vulnerable Democrats weighed in.

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Newer Democratic members, particularly those who won Republican-held seats, have been the most vocal. First-termers such as Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Haley Stevens of Michigan and Ben McAdams of Utah helped convince House Democratic leaders to hold off on the pay raise, arguing their re-election efforts were tough enough without an issue for which attack ads practically write themselves.

“I don’t think it was wise at this moment, that’s for sure,” was how Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan put it, according to Politico. “When working Americans are not seeing their wages go up, I can’t imagine how we do this.”

The concerns of Democratic freshmen are understandable from a political perspective. And it was not only smart politics but the right thing to do when Congress initially froze its pay increases after 2009 because of the financial crises. Then, with the Great Recession devouring constituents’ life savings and dramatically eroding home values, lawmakers didn’t want to look like they were lining their own pockets.

But the practice continued without end, to the point that lawmakers now earn the same amount, $174,000, as they did a decade ago. (A few top leaders get more.) Staffers can get individual raises, but members’ overall office allowances to pay for salaries have remained stagnant, so one person’s hike comes at the expense of another’s. In practice, many staff members haven’t seen raises in several years. That pinches over a decade. According to the Congressional Research Service, inflation since 2009 has effectively eroded the purchasing power of lawmaker salaries by 15 percent — and the same goes for their staff.

Meanwhile, the financial circumstances of the country have changed greatly. If this moment isn’t a politically safe one for members to raise congressional salaries, when will it be? Lawmakers deserve to pocket the raises they’re eligible for, which would be about a 2 to 3 percent annual raise under the law if the freeze wasn’t put in place. Despite poor public perceptions and nose-diving approval ratings, serving in Congress is a time-consuming, draining job that deserves a professional salary commensurate with lawmakers’ responsibilities and needs to have homes in two places.

Whatever the merit of a pay increase for Congress, the staff who keep Congress running around the clock on mediocre paychecks surely deserve one. Ironically, it’s frequently spending bills like the one the pay increase would have been in that can keep staff at work into the wee hours, often during the summer, as they write and rewrite legislation.

Beyond the moral imperative for these individuals, there’s another reason why paying congressional aides better is important for their fellow Americans. Their poor compensation is naturally going to lead staffers to evaluate their job options, and make a quick exit a lot more likely for many who had wanted to build decades-long Hill-based careers in public service. There’s no way to precisely quantify whether routinely low salaries spur a brain drain, but common sense suggests it’s only natural.

Having been in Washington for a while, staffers can often calculate with a high degree of accuracy how much their services might be worth to a lobbying firm, consulting shop or similar influence-peddling outfit, said Josh McCrain, a doctoral candidate at Emory University and an expert on lobbying and congressional staff.

“You have a very good idea what your experience is worth off the Hill,” McCrain said in an interview about the temptation of salaries that can run well into the six figures.

The lack of decent compensation will drive away good public servants and make Congress a place where only the rich can serve.

There’s also a compelling argument that lack of decent compensation will drive away good public servants and make Congress a place where only the rich can serve. Veteran lawmakers like Hoyer and first-term Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have both advanced versions of this argument.

“Yep, it’s not just about cost of living adjustments, we’re also fighting for a living wage for interns + for strong staffer salaries, too,” AOC tweeted Tuesday. “DC is teeming w staffers whose parents subsidized their low-wage (or no wage) jobs. That’s partly why many policies are out of touch.”

Emory’s McCrain suggested putting in place better terms for staffers that aren’t tied to the political winds. “Let’s have really good parental leave, day care options for staffers,” he said, among other potential benefits. “There’s this whole lack of infrastructure to treat these people like they’re valuable employees.”

At the very least, it’s time to decouple lawmakers’ salaries from the hardworking people who work for them. Members of Congress get to decide each year whether to take the pay raise they have coming to them. Staffers get no such choice.