Lawmakers: Chaffetz has a point on housing stipend
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers in both parties aren’t endorsing former Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Finance: Trump pitches massive tax cuts | Freedom Caucus endorses plan | Dems slam framework | House GOP to move B border wall bill | Officials under fire for private jet use GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Republicans predict Senate ObamaCare repeal would pass House MORE's suggestion that they be provided a $30,000 per year housing stipend — but also say the outgoing lawmaker has a point.

The Utah Republican told The Hill days before resigning from Congress that lawmakers should get a $2,500 monthly allowance to pay for the high cost of living even part-time in Washington, D.C.

Salaries for members of Congress have been frozen since 2010, leading some to complain in recent years that it’s becoming difficult to maintain two places of residence. 

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Yet lawmakers acknowledge it's a nonstarter to try to convince the public that a six-figure salary more than double the median American income isn't enough. 

"I think that my constituents right now probably don’t have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Congress," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.).  

Rank-and-file lawmakers earn $174,000 annually, while members of leadership earn more. The Speaker makes the highest salary, at $223,500. 

The median American household income was $55,775 in 2015, according to a Census Bureau report last year.

That, combined with polls showing the public holds Congress in low regard, has made it politically treacherous for lawmakers to seek a raise.

Rep. Bill FloresBill FloresGun proposal picks up GOP support Gingrich: Banning rapid fire gun modification is ‘common sense’ GOP lawmaker to unveil bill banning gun bump stocks MORE (R-Texas) said he pays about $50,000 a year for rent, utilities and parking in D.C. Still, Flores, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said he would vote against any sort of pay hike or housing stipend for lawmakers.

“I think it probably makes sense to look at it, but politically, it would be pretty toxic,” Flores told The Hill.

Many lawmakers share houses or apartments to split rental costs. And scores of lawmakers in both parties sleep in their offices to save money, despite the occasional indignities required.

One House GOP lawmaker who sleeps in his office said there was “merit” in Chaffetz’s proposal but added it simply is not realistic, given Congress’s low public approval rating.

“There is no way I can afford to rent a place in Washington, D.C. I have a house. I have a family. I have a car payment. I have grocery bills. We like to go on vacation once a year,” the GOP lawmaker said, rubbing his neck that he said was stiff from sleeping on a cot the night before. 

“But I’m sure as heck not going to go out there and talk about it, because [$174,000 a year] is still a hell of a lot more money than the average American makes and I’m the one who signed up for this job.”

Rep. Paul GosarPaul GosarHouse conservatives: Rove's criticism 'wrong and misguided' House votes to block funding for EPA methane pollution rule McCain needs to start showing my constituents more respect MORE (R-Ariz.) had two back surgeries in the last year but insists he has no problem with sleeping on the floor in his office, without even a cot.

“It’s actually really, really good for my back,” Gosar said. “I’m a big backpacker. So my floor is pretty fine by me.”

Sleeping in the office is especially appealing to lawmakers who already represent expensive parts of the country, like Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), whose district is in New York City.

“I don’t mind sleeping in my office. I have a 2-year-old at home, so all my resources go to her,” Donovan said. 

Several lawmakers said a housing stipend and possible salary hike are ideas that have come up recently in private member-to-member conversations.

“There has been no increase in eight years for member pay, but that’s something that I think is certainly deserving of taking a look at,” House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) told The Hill. “You don’t want this to be a place where you can only come if you are independently wealthy.”

Since lawmakers would be reluctant to vote on giving themselves more taxpayer-funded benefits, some have proposed using campaign funds to help subsidize housing costs in D.C., though election officials would have to sign off on that first.

They also pointed out that when chiefs of staff, based back in the congressional district, visit Washington, their lodging expenses are covered by lawmakers' Members' Representational Allowances (MRAs). Some lawmakers question why the MRAs can’t be used for their housing expenses as well.

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said he was one of the original congressional office dwellers. He began sleeping in his office during his first stint in the House starting in 1995, in part to make a statement that D.C. was not his home. But with soaring real estate prices in the city, “financial realities” are now causing lawmakers to skip out on buying or renting a second place in Washington.

Sleeping in one’s office is a “vivid and absolutely concrete reminder that Washington is not your home. When you sleep in your office, there is no confusion about where home is, and I think there is a value to that,” Sanford told The Hill. “I think that’s probably a larger debate about whether or not you want to open up another perceived benefit for members of Congress.”

There’s no sign members of Congress will try to make changes to their compensation anytime soon.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill before leaving for the Fourth of July recess that would maintain the lawmaker pay freeze. That provision is expected to become law when Congress finalizes a spending package later this year.

Multiple lawmakers have suggested in recent years that it might be time to adjust their salaries, but those calls have gone nowhere.

Former Rep. Jim MoranJim MoranDems face close polls in must-win Virginia Billionaire Trump donor hires lobbyists to help vets Lawmakers: Chaffetz has a point on housing stipend MORE (D-Va.) similarly suggested a housing stipend for “underpaid” members of Congress before he retired at the end of 2014. 

Two years ago, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) became the most senior lawmaker to endorse a cost-of-living adjustment for members of Congress. An aide said this week that it would still be “the appropriate step to take.”

And Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) drew controversy in 2015 when he complained about moving out of an apartment on Capitol Hill that went up to $3,100 from $2,100.

“My mortgage on a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house — and I understand location, location, location — in Florida is cheaper than my rent here,” Hastings told The Hill.

Hastings liked Chaffetz’s idea but said “his figure was a bit high.” The idea could gain more traction if it was around $1,700, Hastings suggested.

Ultimately, Hastings acknowledged that lawmakers don’t have the political capital to help themselves pay for housing in D.C.

“They’re scared of their shadows,” Hastings said of his colleagues, whom he noted have thanked him privately for speaking out. 

“But when all is said and done, they ain’t gonna do a damn thing.”