Aides to Congress: Show us the money, but not twice a month

It’s not easy living on one paycheck a month, but two could be worse, say some House aides.

Staffers appear to have mixed feelings at best about a proposed shift to a twice-per-month pay schedule, something Senate aides — and most other U.S. workers — take for granted.

“It’s more convenient for me to get my bills and pay them at the beginning of the month and then see where I stand for the rest of the month,” said Sam Burnett, 23, a legislative assistant for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

Nina Andrews, 26, a scheduler for Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), hasn’t had trouble budgeting her life on one paycheck a month. “It takes me 30 minutes to pay my bills each month,” she said.

Andrews jokingly suggests that after a mid-month splurge on shoes, her household might be light on food during the last days of the month. “So what if I might starve for the last week because I bought a pair of shoes? I just don’t go to see a movie or don’t go out to eat.”

House staffers might need to get used to receiving their pay in two supplements soon, if House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) gets his way. Congress has approved a measure allowing Brady’s panel to change the pay schedule of the House, and Brady has repeatedly signaled he plans to use the new power soon.  

“Once the bill is enacted, the committee will adopt regulations that change the pay cycle,” he said during the House floor debate on the measure granting his committee the new power.

Brady said making the change will accommodate the needs of young House staffers, who he said sometimes have trouble budgeting on one paycheck a month. “[The bill] ensures that we have the flexibility and the authority to make payroll disbursement changes as necessary to be responsive to the needs of House employees,” Brady said.

Brady is responding to complaints long voiced by House staff members, who have often argued that all other federal employees get paid every two weeks. That includes Senate staff, who have been paid twice a month for decades.

Getting one monthly paycheck, distributed on the last day of every month, can affect one’s spending habits. It might mean more trips to the Capitol Lounge and other Pennsylvania Avenue hotspots at the beginning of the month, and empty barstools at month’s end.

It can also lead to higher credit card charges for young people living on their own for the first time.

“If it wasn’t for my credit card, I wouldn’t have survived the first couple of months,” said a Democratic aide. “The lag just killed me. I tried just eating Ramen, but then got to the end of the second week and was like, ‘Screw this’ and started charging up my card.”

Dan Beard, the House chief administrative officer, supports Brady’s measure because he thinks it will make it easier for younger staffers fresh out of school to budget their money.

“It’s particularly important for our younger employees. Approximately two-thirds of our employees are under 35 and it’s very difficult to last 30 days on the current pay system,” said Beard, whose office pays House staffers.

The average age of a House staffer is 37, but most aides are between the ages of 25 and 29.

While senior staff can earn hefty paychecks, almost half of all House staffers make between $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

“It’s really tough living monthly paycheck to paycheck,” said an executive assistant to a House Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Most people on the Hill have a lot of supplemental support from their parents.”

A spokesman for Brady’s committee said older staffers tend to have an easier time budgeting on one monthly paycheck.

“For someone who is older and who is making more money, it’s probably easier to do it on a monthly basis, whereas someone who is younger is probably doing the paycheck-to-paycheck thing,” said Kyle Anderson, 40, spokesman for the Committee on House Administration’s Democrat side. “So it winds up looking like a function of age when it actually is a matter of income. If you had younger people who were making significant amounts of money, it might not even be an issue.”

A report by the Inspector General of the House looked into the possible benefits, hang-ups and costs associated with moving to a different pay schedule. It found few setbacks to making the switch, but did estimate it would cost between $744,000 and $1,116,000 to make the change.

One House Republican staffer, who did not want to be named for fear of sparking a partisan battle over the issue, said he thinks it’s easier for younger staffers to budget on one paycheck.

“It’s far easier to count how much money is left after you’ve paid your bills at the beginning of the month and know that’s how much money you have to get you to the next month,” the GOP staffer said. Trying to do the same thing with two paychecks is more complicated, the staffer concluded.

But not everyone hates the idea of change.

“It would be a lot easier to be paid every two weeks,” said Beth Campbell, a staff assistant to Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.). “There have been months where the last week is tight.”

“You have to be on the ball for budgeting for the entire month,” said Colleen Davis, 27, staff assistant for Poe. “Because the last week can be he hardest. You’ve got to pay your rent, bills, car payments, and you have to make sure you have enough income left to make it to the end of the month.”

Some staffers suggest it can be difficult to get by on a Hill salary regardless of how it is divided.

“Unless you have savings built up, it’s quite difficult,” said Casaday Nguyen, 23, legislative correspondent for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “But even if you have built up an emergency fund, sometimes your car breaks down and it costs $1,000. Not many people have an extra $1,000 [after paying bills and rent at the beginning of the month].”