Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike

Aaron Schwartz - Greg Nash

House Democrats hailing from swing districts are split over leadership’s decision to move forward with a spending package that would allow members of Congress to get a pay bump for the first time in a decade. 

The House is slated to vote next week on a nearly $1 trillion spending package that would allow a cost-of-living increase for lawmakers and staff to go into effect. 

Members of both parties, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have spoken up in recent years about the need for competitive salaries to help reduce the exodus to higher-paying K Street lobbying jobs.


But some of the most vulnerable House Democrats who only arrived on Capitol Hill five months ago are pushing back, fearing the pay raise won’t go over well with the public.

Freshman Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) unveiled an ethics reform package on Wednesday that would prevent members from receiving a pay raise until Congress eliminates the deficit, as well as ban them from becoming lobbyists.

“As I look at this, I see a Congress that’s dysfunctional,” Axne said. “I think until we get the dysfunction under control and our deficit under control and down to zero, then Congress people don’t deserve a raise.”

Axne even said she’d reject the pay raise if it went into effect, pointing to her decision to withhold her pay during the government shutdown earlier this year.

“I would refuse this increase as well,” Axne said.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who also flipped a GOP-held district last fall, told The Hill that a pay raise would be a “hard thing for me to support” when Congress isn’t getting bills aimed at doing the same for their constituents signed into law. 

“So long as legislation that lowers the cost of living for my constituents is not going through — which is largely the fault of the U.S. Senate right now — I’m not comfortable with my pay increasing,” Malinowski told The Hill.

Rank-and-file members of Congress currently make $174,000 annually. Members of leadership earn more, with the Speaker making the highest salary at $223,500 while the majority and minority leaders pull in $193,400. 

The Congressional Research Service estimated that the 2018 salary level for rank-and-file members would be $208,000 had Congress instituted the annual cost-of-living increases as outlined in a 1989 ethics law over the past decade. 


Lawmakers opted to forgo an annual raise in 2010, during the recession, and haven’t taken a pay raise since.

Lawmakers are slated to receive a 2.6 percent, or $4,500, increase in January 2020.

Some swing-district Democratic freshmen, including Reps. Dean Phillips (Minn.) and Sean Casten (Ill.), say they’re prepared to defend the pay raise as a way to help attract the best people to Congress. 

Both pointed to their business backgrounds where annual cost-of-living increases are typical, arguing Congress shouldn’t be any different for members and, consequently, their staff.

“I want to be able to attract the best and brightest to this job, because that’s how I ran my company. When I ran my company, I paid a competitive wage. I didn’t tell people, come here because you’re so committed to our mission that you’re willing to, you know, sleep on your friend’s couch and work for peanuts. It’s horrible that we force people to do that,” Casten said.

Phillips pointed to the number of lawmakers — estimated to be in the dozens — who sleep in their offices to save money on pricey Washington-area rent.

“Those are the truths. If they’re presented in a factual way, I think Americans might come to the same conclusion, that we can do better,” Phillips said.

“Coming from the private sector, we afforded our employees cost-of-living increases, because the cost of living increases every year. And it shouldn’t be an annual battle or a battle in every Congress to do so. So in general terms, do I concur with inflation-based cost-of-living increases for hardworking employees in any enterprise, public or private? Yes.”

But like Axne, Phillips wouldn’t accept a pay raise for himself. A spokesman for Phillips later told The Hill after this story was published that if a cost-of-living increase is ever enacted, the Minnesota Democrat would donate his raise back to the Treasury.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, fellow freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also expressed support for the pay raise, arguing it’s consistent with policies like advocating for a minimum wage increase.

“I think that all people in the country should get cost-of-living adjustments,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Hill. “I think the entire country should have the health care that we have. I think the entire country should have cost-of-living adjustments. Which is why I’m comfortable with it because I fight for those consistently across my platform.”

Lawmakers further argue the change is necessary to retain top staff who can’t make more than their bosses on Capitol Hill.

“We’re in a very competitive environment with the lowest unemployment in a generation. And we feel that, too. Because people can get better-paying jobs elsewhere,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents thousands of federal workers in Northern Virginia. “And for key staff, that’s a problem.”

Lawmakers’ salary is well above the typical American’s: The Census Bureau reported last year that the median household income was $61,372 in 2017. 

Despite the six-figure salary, lawmakers say it can be difficult to maintain two residences, back home and in the major metropolitan area of Washington — especially if they hail from places that also have a high cost of living.

But that’s drawing little sympathy from Senate Republicans and the House GOP campaign arm.

The National Republican Congressional Committee suggested that the current lawmaker pay “just isn’t enough for these socialist elitists.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) dismissed the idea, saying his GOP colleagues would not support a congressional pay raise. 

“I don’t think that’ll go anywhere in the Republican conference,” he said.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) blasted House Democrats for the proposal, writing in a statement that “These jokers couldn’t hold down a summer job at Dairy Queen pulling this kinda crap.”

Lawmaker pay wasn’t always used as a wedge issue. The 1989 law that establishes the annual cost-of-living increases came as part of a bipartisan ethics package.

At a hearing held by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress last month, former lawmakers recalled how they wouldn’t attack incumbents on the campaign trail for voting for annual pay raises. 

In 1990, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn’t fully support the Democrat running against Newt Gingrich (Ga.), then the House GOP whip, because he made an issue of Gingrich’s vote in favor of a congressional pay raise. That came as Gingrich only won reelection narrowly.

“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,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 1996 and 1998 election cycles.

Hoyer acknowledged this week that the pay raise is necessary even if the politics might be tough.

“I don’t think there’s ever a time when people think it’s very good politically to do,” Hoyer said.

Niv Elis contributed to this story, which was updated June 6, 5:55 p.m.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ben Sasse Cindy Axne congressional pay cost-of-living raises Dean Phillips Gerry Connolly Government shutdown Newt Gingrich Richard Shelby Sean Casten Steny Hoyer Tom Malinowski

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