House

GOP leader, Ocasio-Cortez give boost to lawmaker pay hike

Aaron Schwartz

Lawmakers say that any effort to give members of Congress a raise won’t pass unless both parties agree not to use the issue as a campaign weapon.

While no such agreement has been ironed out, there is a chance that there will be a bipartisan deal struck at some point this year.

Proponents of the pay hike acknowledge it’s not popular but argue that it is long overdue.

{mosads}The effort got a significant boost Tuesday when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered support for a pay bump, saying he doesn’t want Congress to be a place where only the wealthy can afford to serve.

Freshman progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, forcefully made a case to her nearly 4.5 million Twitter followers, defending giving members of Congress the cost-of-living adjustment.

That came after House Democratic leaders pulled a spending bill from the floor on Monday that would allow lawmakers to get a pay raise for the first time in a decade.

At a press conference, McCarthy acknowledged the political sensitivity of a congressional raise but said it’s something legislators should consider.

“I know when you talk this subject about a COLA, a cost-of-living increase, it does an invoke an emotion — kind of an impulsive emotion. I think it’s one we should pause and look at,” McCarthy said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has long advocated for giving lawmakers a cost-of-living adjustment, has been in talks with McCarthy on the matter.

Hoyer said Tuesday that he still intends to schedule a vote on giving lawmakers a cost-of-living adjustment this year.

“I hope we pass it so that members can have the ability to not live in their offices,” Hoyer said, referring to the lawmakers who sleep in their offices to save money on expensive Washington rent. “We don’t want to have only rich people here. You know, we want this to be the People’s House, and representative of the people.”

Ocasio-Cortez argued in a series of tweets that keeping up lawmakers’ salaries with the cost of living is consistent with advocating the same for everyone.

“It’s not a fun or politically popular position to take. But consistency is important,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “ALL workers should get cost of living increases. That’s why minimum wage should be pegged to inflation, too.”

But many House Democrats in swing districts remain wary of the optics of voting to give themselves a pay raise out of fear it’ll be used against them.

“We didn’t come up here to give ourselves a raise,” said freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.).

{mossecondads}More than a dozen Republicans also joined with battleground Democrats to submit amendments to the spending bill that sought to block the pay raise. And they’re making clear that they’ll keep pushing leadership to leave a pay raise out of any appropriations measure for legislative branch operations.

“I am pleased that enough of my colleagues agreed to join me that we were able to force leadership to put this ridiculous raise on hold,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who submitted one of the bipartisan amendments, said in a statement on Tuesday.

In the past, members of Congress would make a truce not to politicize their annual cost-of-living adjustments. For example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn’t fully endorse the Democrat running against Newt Gingrich (Ga.) in 1990 because he made an issue of the then-House GOP whip’s vote in favor of a congressional pay raise.

Freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who flipped a GOP-held district last fall, said both sides would have to make the jump together.

“Both sides have to lay down their arms and look at this in the context of in the private sector and in a lot of the public sector, cost of living increases are standard practice for good reason,” said Phillips, who added that he wouldn’t take a pay bump for himself if it went into effect.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) initially issued a press release last week blasting Democrats as “socialist elitists” for moving forward with the pay raise. That release has since been removed from the NRCC’s website. An NRCC spokesman didn’t return a request for comment seeking an explanation.

The episode frustrated Democrats who support the cost-of-living adjustment.

“I get that it’s controversial and difficult, but I think there is bipartisan support for it. And unfortunately, the Republicans didn’t keep their side of the line,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “Once it became a public bashing tool, it became a problem.”

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said the lack of trust between the two parties shows why it’s hard for Congress to make the case for a pay raise.

“That is yet another example of the complete failure of trust in this town,” Reed said. “To me, that’s just a natural consequence of partisan politics that has evolved to this situation.”

Members are set to automatically receive annual cost-of-living adjustments under a 1989 law unless they vote to freeze their salaries, as has been the case since 2009.

During testimony before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress last month, one of the co-chairmen of a bipartisan task force that led to a congressional pay raise said that both parties need to reach an agreement.

“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,” former Rep. Victor Fazio (D-Calif.) said. “You gotta get back to that.”

Rank-and-file members of Congress currently make $174,00 annually. The Speaker makes the highest salary at $223,500, while the House majority and minority leaders make $193,400.

Lawmakers are set to receive a $4,500, or 2.6 percent, raise in January unless they vote to maintain the pay freeze.

But lawmakers universally express sympathy toward the idea of raising staff salaries to help slow the revolving door to K Street. Staff can’t make more than their bosses on Capitol Hill, but they can make more money in lucrative lobbying jobs.

Freshman Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) stressed that “I’m brand new. I’m very happy to have a salary from Congress.”

But she said that she’s concerned about the impact on staff.

“I guess if that’s what it’s going to take, then maybe we do need to do it,” Scanlon said.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Brian Fitzpatrick Dean Phillips Joe Cunningham Kevin McCarthy Mary Gay Scanlon Newt Gingrich Pramila Jayapal Steny Hoyer Tom Reed
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