Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay

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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (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.

{mosads}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 Kilmer (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.

{mossecondads}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 Graves (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 Pascrell (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-Cortez (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 Thompson (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 Moran (D-Va.) and Jason Chaffetz (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. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bennie Thompson Bill Pascrell congressional pay Derek Kilmer Jason Chaffetz Jim Moran Steny Hoyer Tom Graves

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