Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay

Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay
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House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrat accuses GOP of opposing DC statehood because of 'race and partisanship' News outlets choose their darlings, ignore others' voices Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul MORE (D-Md.) is calling for a cost-of-living adjustment to lawmaker salaries, which have remained stagnant for a decade — but it's likely to be a tough sell.

In remarks before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress this week, Hoyer said that "it is time to address the issue of member and staff pay and benefits." 

"Americans ought to have our nation’s diversity of economic backgrounds better reflected in this House," he added.

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The House voted to create the select committee at the start of the new Congress in January to come up with recommendations for modernizing the legislative branch by the end of the year. The panel has been specifically tasked with developing recommendations on a variety of issues, including the congressional schedule, procedures, technology, and staff retention and compensation.

Members of Congress have had their salaries frozen for a decade, after last receiving a pay adjustment in January 2009.

Hoyer has called for a lawmaker pay raise in the past to keep up with the cost of living, arguing that it would help ensure that people who aren’t wealthy can serve in Congress. 

"The cost of rent, child care and other necessities has risen substantially in Washington and across the country in recent years, but members and staff pay and benefits have not kept pace with the private sector," Hoyer said this week. "If we want to attract a more diverse group of Americans to run for office and work on Capitol Hill, we need to make it possible for them to do so."

Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerModernize Congress to make it work for the people House Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Wave of Washington state lawmakers call for impeachment proceedings against Trump MORE (D-Wash.), chairman of the select committee, told The Hill that a number of colleagues have privately asked if the committee will review member pay. 

"I've had a couple of members offline also raise the issue and say, 'Hey, are you guys going to take a look at that?'" Kilmer said.

Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, while members of leadership earn more. The Speaker earns the most at $223,500, while the majority and minority leaders in both chambers and the Senate president pro tempore earn $193,400. 

The Congressional Research Service calculated that if members of Congress had received annual cost-of-living adjustments, the 2018 salary level would have been $208,000.

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Even though their salaries haven’t gone up for a decade, lawmakers acknowledge it’s hard to argue for a pay raise when average Americans make far less. The Census Bureau reported last year that the median American household income was $61,372 in 2017.

"I would like a raise. I don't see any member that wouldn't like a raise," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "The issue at hand, though, is not that. The issue at hand is, does the public support a raise? And in the middle of everything else we're doing, should we utilize political capital on something like that? I would say no."

Kilmer noted that the select committee's final report will need support from two-thirds of its members to submit it to the rest of Congress, indicating that tackling the issue of lawmaker pay isn't likely to be a high priority.

Both Kilmer and Rep. Tom GravesJohn (Tom) Thomas GravesModernize Congress to make it work for the people 5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE (Ga.), the select committee's top Republican, were careful to avoid taking personal positions on lawmaker pay.

"I think that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit on things that need to be fixed in Congress," said Kilmer. "If I'm identifying levers that need to be pulled immediately, it's more things like trying to have a more transparent process so that the American public knows what we're doing. It's trying to have a smarter approach to deliberation so that there's actually more problem-solving that happens in this place."

Lawmakers are more likely to focus on calls to raise pay for congressional staff.

"Ultimately, nearly all our problems come back to staggering underinvestment in ourselves," said Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellOn The Money: Senate panel scraps vote on key spending bill amid standoff | Democrats threaten to vote against defense bill over wall funding | Trump set to meet with aides about reducing capital gains taxes GOP lawmaker calls for investigation into CNN spy story Ocasio-Cortez renews impeachment call amid probe involving Trump's Scotland property MORE (D-N.J.). "Staff should not be enticed to leave for lobbyist pay, taking their expertise with them."

A number of members in the House are wealthy, but not everyone is.

Freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) shared how she had to scramble after learning that a security deposit for her district office space couldn't be paid for with congressional funds. She couldn't pay for it out of her personal bank account, so she had to search for a landlord that didn't require a security deposit.  

Porter also described the unpleasant surprise of learning that her health insurance wouldn't go into effect until Feb. 1, a month after she took office. A single mother, Porter couldn't go onto a spouse's plan and faced high insurance costs through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. She ultimately reached a solution with her former employer but lamented what she called a "bias against members without significant financial resources."

"Congress is not built for the middle class," Porter told the committee.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Progressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan MORE (D-N.Y.) said stagnant lawmaker salaries lead to greed.

"Members are paid more than avg - but job reqs 2 residences + we can’t take tax deductions for work costs," she tweeted on Wednesday. "No one wants to be the one to bring up increases, so instead ppl take advantage of insider trading loopholes & don’t close them for the extra cash."

Ocasio-Cortez's office didn't respond when asked if she would support a cost-of-living adjustment for members of Congress. 

Dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken to sleeping in their Capitol Hill offices to avoid the cost of expensive rent in the Washington, D.C., area, where one-bedroom apartments often cost around $2,000 a month or more.

But some lawmakers are trying to put a stop to that. Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Homeland Security chairman calls on new Trump aide to reestablish cyber coordinator House Democrat urges Trump to address online extremism at UN MORE (D-Miss.), the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus argue that using official resources for personal use amounts to an ethics violation.

Thompson suggested that the select committee could consider ways to help lawmakers afford housing in Washington, such as allowances or permitting them to deduct costs from their taxes.

Lawmakers previously could deduct up to $3,000 per year for living expenses while away from their homes, but that deduction was eliminated with the 2017 GOP tax overhaul. 

"If members say they can't afford it, then from the standpoint of the select committee, I referenced Treasury regulations that kind of say if your job requires you to be somewhere, that's a legitimate deduction. So I'm saying, why should members of Congress be treated differently? Just treat us like all other federal employees," Thompson said.

Some of the most prominent proponents of helping lawmakers with the cost of living have been members on their way out the door who don't have to worry about potential blowback, such as former Reps. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranStar-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report DC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report Bottom line MORE (D-Va.) and Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges MORE (R-Utah). 

Graves acknowledged that the issue of lawmaker pay can be tough politically. But he said that the select committee plans to hold a hearing with former members of Congress, noting they likely would be more candid about what should be done.

"They have nothing politically at risk. And so there will be a very transparent and open conversation," Graves said.