Former lawmakers urge Congress to consider pay raises

Former lawmakers urge Congress to consider pay raises
© Greg Nash

Former lawmakers on Wednesday urged a select committee tasked with modernizing Congress to consider finding ways to increase pay for staff and lawmakers.

But the former members acknowledged the political difficulties of raising salaries for lawmakers, who last received a pay adjustment in January 2009.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) raised the issue during a hearing with former lawmakers before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which was created earlier this year to offer recommendations in the coming months on how to improve the functioning of the legislative branch.

Wednesday's hearing also included a discussion of issues such as changing the congressional schedule and improving staff retention, the latter of which led to the question of compensation.

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"There is a reluctance on the part of many to want to do anything that will cost money because it's not going to play well, I guess. And nobody wants to increase their own salary because somebody will campaign against you that you increased your salary," Cleaver said. "We don't want to spend money. We don't want anybody to think we want to increase our salaries."

Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, while members of leadership earn more. But lawmakers have said over the years that it can be difficult to maintain two residences — one back home and one in Washington, where the cost of living is high.

"If you come from the Midwest, you can live in an apartment for $600 a month, and it's a really nice apartment. You come here, and $600 a month, you're homeless. Somebody may let you sleep in their front yard, maybe, but you're not going to get cover for $600," Cleaver said.

Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) said lawmakers' decision to halt annual incremental congressional pay bumps only makes it harder to authorize one that reflects the cost of living a decade later. He pointed to a bipartisan task force he co-chaired in 1989 that led to a congressional pay raise while abolishing honoraria payments from private groups.

"We said essentially that we're all in this together. We all know we need it. So let's stand by each other and do this as one. And it worked," Fazio said. "You gotta get back to that."

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.

Former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) also said lawmakers agreed not to attack each other for endorsing pay increases during his time as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he led during the 1996 and 1998 election cycles.

"We would not permit our candidates running against an incumbent to attack that incumbent on the basis of his vote on the issue of pay," Frost said.

Yet Frost acknowledged that might not be feasible in the current political environment. "I don't know that the political committees are capable of doing that today," he said.

In his opening statement to the select committee, Frost endorsed a proposal from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman 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.) to ban lawmakers from sleeping in their offices. While the precise number is unknown, dozens of lawmakers in both parties are known to sleep in their offices to save money on rent in Washington, where one-bedroom apartments often cost $2,000 or more per month.

"Stopping members from sleeping in their offices would certainly modernize Congress and improve its image among the public. And I hope that you would do that," Frost said.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), however, suggested it would be easier for the select committee to focus on compensation for congressional staff than for lawmakers. The highest salary that committee staffers can earn is $172,500, while employees in House member offices can make up to $168,411.

"Maybe it's a bridge too far for this committee to come out and recommend a pay increase. It's a little self-serving. But at least looking at the staff I think would make a large step and I think is much more doable," Davis said.

Ex-Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) warned against looking into lawmaker pay raises. "This Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress cannot be about members' pay raises," Roemer said.

The select committee held a hearing in March with current members of Congress to field suggestions on how to modernize Congress.

At that hearing, 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.) renewed his call for a cost-of-living adjustment for lawmaker salaries. And Thompson suggested that the committee consider ways to help lawmakers afford housing in Washington, such as allowances or a tax deduction.