Pelosi announces House staffers can now earn higher salaries than lawmakers

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
Julia Nikhinson

House staffers will now be able to earn higher salaries than the members of Congress for whom they work under a new order announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday in an effort to help retain top talent on Capitol Hill. 

Staff salaries have remained stagnant for more than a decade thanks to the lawmaker pay freeze that’s been in place since 2009, leading many people to leave Capitol Hill for higher-paying jobs at lobbying groups or in the executive branch.

But under the new policy unveiled by Pelosi, the salary cap for House staffers will be $199,300, up from the maximum salary of $173,900 in 2020 for both the House and Senate.

That means some top staffers will be in the position of earning more money than their bosses. Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 annually, while certain members of congressional leadership have higher salaries. The House Speaker earns $223,500, while the majority and minority leaders in both chambers, as well as the Senate president pro tempore, earn $193,400. 

“This order will help the Congress recruit and retain the outstanding and diverse talent that we need, as it also helps ensure parity between employees of the House of Representatives and other employees of the federal government,” Pelosi wrote in the announcement

Members of Congress previously received annual cost-of-living adjustments to ensure their salaries kept up with inflation. But starting in 2009 amid the economic recession, lawmakers opted to turn down pay raises for themselves to show a message of solidarity with struggling Americans. 

But that’s resulted in making any discussion of resuming the cost-of-living adjustments since the recession ended a political hot potato.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has been a top proponent of resuming the cost-of-living adjustments for lawmakers and for raising staff pay, arguing that it would help stem the flow of low-paid staffers leaving Capitol Hill to become lobbyists and to ensure that members of Congress don’t need to be independently wealthy to afford homes in both Washington and their home districts.

House Democrats came close to passing a spending bill in 2019 that would have ended the lawmaker pay freeze, but the vote was ultimately scrapped due to alarm from vulnerable centrists in swing districts concerned about the optics. 

If members of Congress had received every scheduled automatic cost-of-living adjustment set by a 1989 ethics law, their 2021 salary level would be $218,600, according to the Congressional Research Service. Lawmaker salaries have effectively decreased about 19.4 percent from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. 

The idea of raising staff pay has broad support, however. Late last month, House Democrats passed a legislative branch spending bill that would increase funding for House office budgets by $134 million to help boost staff pay. It also included $18.2 million to pay interns in lawmaker and House committee offices. 

The funding increase for staff pay came after Hoyer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the House Democratic caucus chairman, called in April for a 20 percent hike for offices serving individual members, leadership and committees.

“In our experience, House staff generally prefer working in public service and would remain on Capitol Hill longer if they no longer felt that their only option to afford the cost of living in the Washington metro area and achieve economic security in the middle class is to leave and pursue more lucrative positions in the private sector or the executive branch,” Hoyer and Jeffries wrote.

Tags Hakeem Jeffries Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer

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