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House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay

House Democrat calls for 'real adult discussion' on lawmaker pay
© Greg Nash

The House Democrat charged with leading appropriations for legislative branch operations said Tuesday that members of Congress should reconsider the lawmaker pay freeze that has been in place for more than a decade, even as a House panel opted to keep the freeze in place for another year.

The House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing legislative branch spending, which Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanNow's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lincoln Project hits Trump for criticizing Goodyear, 'an American company' MORE (D-Ohio) chairs, advanced legislation on Tuesday that maintains the freeze on lawmaker salaries that has been in effect since 2009.

Ryan said he believes the pay freeze should continue "right now, with everything going on in our country." The nation's unemployment rate is at 11.1 percent, and many Americans facing pay cuts or furloughs due to the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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But Ryan argued that it was unwise to keep freezing lawmaker salaries indefinitely while pay for other government officials such as judges and senior executive branch employees has risen with the cost of living over the years.

"We cannot keep turning this into a gotcha moment," Ryan said shortly before his subcommittee voted to advance the bill.

"We have members sleeping in their offices to save money. So we need to have a real adult discussion on this issue and stop using it to score easy political points, or this body will be filled with only millionaires who do not represent the vast majority of the American people," Ryan said.

Lawmakers first began blocking annual cost-of-living adjustments for themselves in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. But since then, many lawmakers in both parties have become wary of the optics of voting to increase their pay even while acknowledging that it's increasingly difficult to maintain two homes — one in their districts and another in the expensive Washington, D.C., real estate market — on their current salaries.

House Democrats came close to passing a legislative branch appropriations bill last year that would have allowed members of Congress to receive a cost-of-living adjustment. That would have amounted to a $4,500 raise as outlined by a 1989 ethics law that allocates scheduled cost-of-living adjustments for lawmakers' salaries.

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But Democratic leaders ultimately scrapped the plan due to concerns from vulnerable centrists in swing districts who feared it would backfire in their reelection campaigns.

Rank-and-file members of Congress currently earn $174,000 per year. Certain members of congressional leadership earn more, with the Speaker earning $223,500 and the House majority and minority leaders making $193,400.

The Congressional Research Service estimated that the 2020 salary for members of Congress would be $216,400 if it had maintained the annual cost-of-living adjustments. It concluded that when adjusted for inflation, lawmaker salaries have effectively decreased 16 percent. 

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported last year that the median U.S. household income was $61,937 in 2018.

A number of lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTop Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief This week: Coronavirus complicates Senate's Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Md.), have been vocal in recent years in their belief that repeatedly blocking cost-of-living adjustments for lawmaker salaries will make it harder for people who aren't independently wealthy to serve in Congress. They also argue that the lawmaker pay freeze makes it harder for staff salaries to go up and compete with private sector pay.

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"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," Hoyer said last year.

In addition to maintaining the lawmaker pay freeze, the legislative branch spending bill advanced on Tuesday includes a provision ordering the removal of statues in the Capitol of people who served in the Confederacy or who have histories of advocating for white supremacy.

The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote Friday to advance the legislation, with a floor vote likely later this month.