By Cristina Marcos - 05/27/15 06:00 AM EDT
House Democrats are defending Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (Md.) call for a lawmaker pay raise, saying he’s right to warn about Congress becoming dominated by the wealthy.
Rank-and-file members said people should pay attention to the second-ranking House Democrat, calling him an “institutionalist” who cares about the long-term health of the legislative branch.
Still, Democrats acknowledge that a salary increase is a political nonstarter, particularly given Congress’s unpopularity.
“I think he was honest and correct,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said of Hoyer’s pay-raise plan. “But in the practical political world? Ain’t gonna happen.”
Hoyer last week became the highest-ranking member of Congress to endorse increasing lawmakers’ salaries to keep pace with the cost of living.
“I think, personally, that it was appropriate at the time of the recession in 2009 for us not to have a cost of living adjustment,” Hoyer said. “But to continue that on simply will dictate that the only people who can serve are the rich. I don’t think that’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind.”
Democrats who agree with Hoyer’s argument say there’s a long way to go before lawmakers can realistically pursue a pay raise.
“I think, if Congress wants to have that conversation, we need to be a lot more functional and a lot more productive,” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyHouse panel tells fed agency to stop selling recalled cars VA Dems jockey for Kaine's seat Celebs, lawmakers light up WH red carpet at state dinner MORE (D-Va.) said. “And I think it doesn’t pass the giggle test for us to be talking about raising our own salaries when our productivity is so low.”
Kildee said that while he’s “perfectly satisfied with the compensation” he gets, Congress would eventually have to ensure that stagnant salaries don’t discourage people from running.
“What we want to do is make sure we’re not creating an environment where good people who want to serve are dissuaded from serving,” Kildee said.
The House last week overwhelmingly approved legislation that keeps in place a lawmaker pay freeze since 2010.
Grijalva suggested that a majority of lawmakers would endorse a pay raise if they didn’t fear the political consequences.
“I think if people were not to state their political opinion and state what they really believe, that most people would be for a raise, given all the time that we’ve been frozen,” Grijalva said.
Rank-and-file members of the House and Senate earn $174,000 annually, while members of leadership earn more. The Speaker receives the highest salary at $223,500.
By comparison, a Census Bureau report from September estimated that the median American household income was $51,939 in 2013.
Even so, many lawmakers struggle with the costs of keeping a residence in their districts and Washington, D.C., which is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. Members frequently share apartments or houses in the District to try to save money.
Hoyer is one of the few members of Congress to broach the subject of lawmaker pay in recent years, along with Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and former Rep. Jim MoranJim Moran10 races Democrats must win to take the House House Dem: Congress needs 'courage' to call for its own pay raise House may resume work on spending bills next week MORE (D-Va.).
Hastings complained during a House Rules Committee meeting on the bill preserving the lawmaker pay freeze that he was unable to afford a luxury apartment on Capitol Hill, where he originally paid $2,100 per month. After the rent spiked to $3,100, he moved out in December “in order to be able to have any discretionary income at all,” he said.
“Members don’t like to talk about it, but it’s kind of a sad state of affairs that we are entering the seventh year of Congress not receiving a raise,” Hastings said.
Connolly acknowledged that most Americans are unlikely to feel sympathy for lawmakers but said they should heed Hastings’s and Hoyer’s warnings about who can serve in Congress.
“Look, I think it’s very difficult to ask the public to feel sorry for members of Congress and their lifestyles and their compensation. Buried in what Alcee was saying, I think, was the concern that over time, only those who can afford to run for these jobs and serve are going to be able to do that. And obviously we don’t want that,” Connolly said.
Moran raised the pay issue last year, when he said members of Congress are “underpaid.” He pushed for a vote on his proposal to provide a housing stipend for members of Congress, but GOP leaders blocked it from reaching the floor.
Moran, who has since retired and now advises D.C. law firm McDermott Will & Emery’s lobbying practice, said his colleagues at the time thanked him privately for speaking out.
Hoyer has long been viewed as a rival to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a potential successor if she retires. Moran said Hoyer’s position on the pay freeze likely solidified respect among the rank and file.
“I think it shows courage on his part. I think people on both sides of the aisle appreciate it,” Moran said in an interview. “That’s called leadership.”