Lawmakers are demanding the first study in nearly a decade on pay for congressional staffers amid growing concerns about whether those workers, in particular women and racial minorities, are being underpaid.
“Addressing pay inequality, both on sex and race, is a top priority,” said Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyLobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs MORE (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. “That’s why we’ve included language in this year’s Legislative Branch appropriations bill for a compensation study that examines both pay equity and the overall competitiveness of House salaries.”
Both the House and Senate tucked the requirement for a pay study into the report language for their respective legislative branch funding bills. And it appears both Democrats and Republicans are on board. Those bills have already passed their chambers as part of a package of three appropriations bills this summer.
A spokesperson for Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyExpats plead with US to deliver COVID-19 vaccines Growing number of Democrats endorse abolishing debt limit altogether Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the Legislative Branch, said he was confident the requirement would be present in the final conference version of the bill.
Studies on House and Senate staff pay were once a regular practice, but the House has not looked into the issue since 2010, while the Senate’s last study was in 2006. It’s been considerably longer since either chamber specifically looked into gender and race pay issues.
Those earlier studies tended to examine pay to combat staff turnover, according to Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress Action, which advocated at congressional hearings earlier this year for reinstating the studies.
If congressional staff are paid less than executive branch or private sector peers, the thinking goes, they are more likely to jump ship when the opportunity arises. High turnover erodes institutional knowledge, ultimately making both chambers less effective, he argued.
“There is reason to believe that congressional staff may have lower salaries than their executive branch counterparts. Any pay gap or perception thereof may affect staff retention in the House of Representatives,” Schuman testified before the House in April.
“In addition, it is unknown but suspected that there are disparities in pay among congressional staff with the same duties that vary based on gender or race. Information about any pay or retention gaps would help the House understand whether further action should be taken,” he added.
Because the House and Senate don’t have a centralized hiring body, hiring decisions are made by individual offices and committees. That means there is no mechanism for systematically comparing their pay practices. Federal pay audits undertaken by the Government Accountability Office and Office of Personnel Management excluded Capitol Hill because it is part of the legislative branch.
The issue of gender and minority pay disparities is receiving renewed attention.
In the House, the last compensation study to address whether there were gender and racial pay disparities was in 2004.
That study found a 17 percent average gender pay gap between men and women. It attributed most of that gap to the fact that women were significantly less likely to hold higher staff positions. Men were more than 50 percent more likely to hold “executive” positions than women.
Further analysis found that some women were paid less for doing the same work as their male counterparts, despite having comparable qualifications.
“In two of the 16 positions analyzed in this manner, gender was found to uniquely affect pay. That is, for 14 of the 16 positions, staff with comparable qualifications did not earn statistically significantly less or more than their gender counterparts do. However, in two positions — Chief of Staff and District Director — female staff earned less than male staff with comparable training and experience,” the 2004 report said.
When it came to race, a similar dynamic was at play.
“On average, black House staff earn 90 cents for every dollar earned by white staff. Hispanic staff earn 81 cents, and for Asian staff the figure is 90 cents,” the report found.
While racial minorities were underrepresented in higher positions, the report did not find evidence of unequal pay for equal work.
“Black and Hispanic staff with comparable education, experience, and demographic characteristics as white staff receive the same salaries as those white staff,” the report said.
In the Senate, the last pay study was done in 1999. That study was unable to identify pay disparities for equal work when it came to race or gender.
But proponents of pay audits note that methodology is key to properly identifying disparities in equal pay.
“Looking at the gender issue is complicated because of the comparability or non-comparability of jobs that have more women or men in them,” said Demetra Smith Nightingale, the former chief evaluation officer at the Department of Labor and now a scholar at the Urban Institute.
“In almost every occupation, even when you control for other things, there is still a gender gap,” she added.
More recent data on congressional staffer pay, however, gives hope that the gap has closed somewhat in the Capitol.
According to Legistorm, the overall gender pay gap for Capitol Hill staffers has narrowed to 3.4 percent in recent years.
Still, the average male chief of staff in the Senate earns roughly $600 more per year than his female counterpart.
In the House, that gap stands at nearly $2,000.