Democrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street
Democratic lawmakers want to raise congressional staffer salaries in a bid to increase diversity and retain talent that is often lured away by the more lucrative private sector.
In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee this week, a group of 110 House Democrats called for increasing the budget for congressional offices by 21 percent next year. The group cited a Congressional Budget Office analysis that some House staffers make about one-fifth less than they did a decade ago when adjusting for inflation.
The pay raise push, spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), follows similar efforts by members of Democratic leadership to increase the Members’ Representational Allowance that pays staffers’ salaries.
House Democrats say paltry entry-level salaries offered on Capitol Hill create barriers for those who don’t have the financial resources to live in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.
“Generational wealth shouldn’t be a requirement to work in Washington,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday. “Congressional staffers have been far underpaid for far too long. This has damaging effects on both policymaking & diversity.”
Democratic lawmakers say Congress is unable to compete with lobbying shops, law firms and other employers in the private sector that can offer far more money. That leads to a “brain drain” as Capitol Hill staffers eventually leave for higher paying jobs.
The average congressional aide works on Capitol Hill for just three years, according to a study by the think tank New America.
“Congress should raise salaries because it’s the right thing to do,” said Maia Hunt Estes, a principal at the government relations firm Invariant and a former chief of staff to Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.).
“There are staffers on the Hill making $25,000 to $30,000. That makes it difficult to see a path forward for how long you can stay in that position.”
Estes said programs that help introduce young adults to Washington are essential to increasing lackluster diversity in Congress and on K Street. Estes was able to intern at a congressional office during college thanks to a stipend from the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Absent that, during my summers I probably would’ve had to find something that would pay me a little bit so that I had some money to take back to school,” Estes said.
Congressional interns weren’t even paid until 2019, when lawmakers enacted legislation allocating $20,000 to each office to pay them. However, many interns have struggled to live on low wages, and the pay doesn’t get much better even if they obtain an entry-level job on Capitol Hill.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of paying interns and giving people fellowships,” said Ivan Zapien, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells. “But nonetheless, once they get to those jobs in Congress, finances take their toll, and they tend to leave for other jobs that pay more money.”
K Street is a popular destination for congressional staffers who can offer expertise and connections to deep-pocketed lobbying clients. The jobs often come with significantly higher salaries, particularly for high-ranking staffers and those working for key lawmakers or congressional committees.
“Lobbying firms salivate at the opportunity to poach Hill staffers with the promise of higher pay,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the advocacy group Issue One. “In return, these special interests gain key institutional knowledge and direct lines to members of Congress. This reality makes it difficult to attract and retain qualified and diverse talent.”
Good government groups also argue that small budgets lead to overworked and underpaid congressional staffers who must rely on lobbyists to understand a broad range of policy issues they’re tasked with covering.
“Better pay will not only improve staff retention, but it will also increase Congress’s capacity to represent the American people and meet the challenges of our increasingly complex world,” McGehee said.
Republicans have historically opposed raises for congressional staffers. But Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.), vice chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, has said staffers deserve better pay.
House Democrats have pushed for congressional pay raises before, but those efforts were stymied not just by Republicans but also by swing-state lawmakers who feared backlash at the ballot box. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has indicated she is open to raising staff salaries this time around.
A coalition of advocacy groups, including Issue One, sent a letter to appropriators last month urging them to increase office budgets to address “the twin issues of low pay and an unsustainable workload.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) have also advocated for larger budgets. They’ve proposed increasing the maximum pay for House staffers, which has remained unchanged for most positions since 2009.
Hoyer has pushed to end a rule that prohibits staffers from making more than lawmakers. With the exception of certain lawmakers in leadership, the salary for House members is capped at $174,000. That’s a high salary for most Americans, but less than senior congressional aides can make elsewhere in the Washington area.
“So many of the folks I work with are driven by the opportunity to serve. And given a way to make progress and see some additional money in their pocket, would they stay longer? Absolutely,” Estes said.
Still, those pay increases might not be enough to retain some senior aides, such as chiefs of staff who are often courted by lobbying firms or major corporations offering substantial raises, Zapien said.
“I think it makes sense to figure out how to financially keep people in Congress, but the reality is that they’re never going to compete with the private sector,” Zapien said. “When you leave Capitol Hill, a lot of times you’re going to make two or three times as much.”