(Added quote from former Hill staffer serving in Congress in ninth and tenth paragraphs.)
A group of House lawmakers are preparing to tackle a politically toxic issue many members see as necessary: increasing Capitol Hill staffer pay.
While incumbents are often criticized by political opponents for any spending increases, lawmakers and advocacy groups say current salaries are too low and result in experienced staffers leaving for the private sector and more lucrative salaries — or at least enough income to buy a house and raise a family in such an expensive city.
The latest effort to raise staffer pay is getting a boost from top Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Both urged a temporary panel of lawmakers focused on modernizing the House to prioritize staffer retention through increased pay and benefits.
“Each year we lose talented and experienced staff with deep institutional knowledge to the private sector because we do not offer competitive compensation and benefits,” Hoyer said at a recent hearing of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “At the same time, we are failing to recruit and retain the more diverse workforce that we have said we want to attract.”
The modernization committee is set to address the issue of staff retention and pay during its first hearings of the year, along with a discussion about opportunities for interns and increasing diversity. The panel’s chair, Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), said that in the previous Congress the six Democrats and six Republicans on the committee all agreed the exodus of talented staff makes it harder for Congress to be effective and gives more sway to experienced lobbyists.
“This is not about self-benefit but an attempt to ensure Congress can continue to recruit and retain and have a capable workforce that can solve problems for the American people,” Kilmer said in a phone interview.
In the past 20 years, costs of living increased as the inflation-adjusted median pay for most staff positions declined, some by more than 20%, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service.
Legislative assistants make an average of $57,163 today, down from $63,252 in 2001, adjusting for inflation.
The average communications director made $78,396 in 2020, a drop from the inflation-adjusted $92,404 they would have made in 2001.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said he saw first-hand during his 16 years as a Hill staffer how low pay contributed to colleagues leaving for other work.
“You can’t always say ‘let’s put the Congress first,’ because you’re gonna have to put your families first,” Davis said. “That’s a decision I don’t want to see staffers have to continue to make.”
But lawmakers are skittish about raising staff salaries, in part because of the optics. Staff are paid through an allowance each lawmaker receives. Increasing that allowance could lead to a lawmaker’s future political opponents accusing them of boosting their own coffers at taxpayer expense.
The modernization committee made several recommendations in the previous Congress, including allowing staffers to earn more than members, increasing benefits, and re-evaluating the funding for member allowances. However, many of the recommendations have yet to be adopted.
Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.), vice chair of the modernization committee, said while there was bipartisan support for raising member allowances, it’s “such a hot button issue.”
“We’ve got to create an equitable system where someone that wants to spend their career on the Hill is not financially burdened,” he said in an interview.
Lure of Lobbying
Compared to the average income in districts their bosses represent, some staffers are well compensated. But what buys one-bedroom apartments in other areas doesn’t go as far in D.C., one of the more expensive cities in the country.
Those looking for a pay-bump don’t have to go far. Private sector positions, including lobbying jobs, generally offer higher salaries. It’s led to high turnover: The average staffer only works in Congress for a little more than three years, according to a study by the think tank New America.
Discrepancies between pay for Hill staffers and lobbyists or executive branch employees leaves Congress at a disadvantage in expertise and experience when negotiating and shaping policy, said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
“Congress, by not paying their staff an equitable and fair amount, are literally going on to the playing field of the public policy arenas without the same level of resources as lobbyists and the executive branch,” Fitch said.
Pay has long been a thorny issue on the Hill. When Hoyer tried to give lawmakers a salary boost to keep up with the costs of living in 2019, moderate Democrats facing tough re-elections killed the effort over concerns their constituents wouldn’t be happy footing the bill for an increase to their $174,000 salaries. Members’ salaries haven’t been increased since 2009.
Staffers by rule can’t make more than their employers, and most make far less. Members pay staffers through allowances, known as Members’ Representational Allowance, or MRAs, which cover office-related expenses. The allowances are funded through the annual appropriations process.
Lawmakers voting to raise their own allowances won’t sit well with voters, said Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One. Rather than see the increase as helping ensure Congress has experienced, effective staff, voters are more likely to believe lawmakers are “feathering their own nest.”
“It’s powerful,” McGehee said of such attacks. “It works, and therefore, why go out as a member of Congress and get your head chopped off?”
Several lawmakers suggested the allowances might not need to be increased to pay staffers more. One possibility floated is that other items paid for with their allowances, such as security and constituent communications, could instead be paid for through alternative mechanisms. This would free up more dollars for wages.
“There’s ways we can thread the needle,” Timmons said. “I think we’re going to try to get creative to lessen the burden on MRAs in other ways.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org