Last week, House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) issued an order raising the maximum staff salary to $199,300. Speaker Pelosi's concern with low staff pay is well-placed. But in a rare misstep, she chose to begin her efforts to address staff pay by aiding the highest remunerated staffers, rather than the lowest.
As a former House staffer, I know full well the struggle of coping with low pay. After graduating from law school, I received roughly one quarter the salary that many of my colleagues were making at large law firms. Like so many other young people before me, I was willing to compromise on pay in order to compete in the ferocious labor market of would-be congressional staffers eager to help take on the issues of our day. In practice, this meant years of being rent-burdened in one of the most expensive cities in the country, forgoing new clothing purchases to the point that my shirts frayed, and taking on credit card debt in order to afford life in that fair city.
In addition to low pay, congressional staff must tolerate tough working conditions. They frequently moonlight or accept subsidies from family members, sacrifice nights and weekends, work in tight quarters on razor-thin deadlines and get bullied by constituents or supervisors to perform impossible or even unethical tasks.
But with all of its drawbacks, being a congressional staffer is a life-changing experience. I still cannot believe that I had the opportunity to fly in a helicopter above Fort Knox as a guest of its commanding general — or that an Army staff delegation to West Point bore my name. I helped plan a reception at a foreign embassy, advised members of Congress on how to vote on pressing issues, drafted legislation aimed at helping the neediest in our society and was privileged to assist constituents during times of trouble. It is hard to put a price on such valuable and unique experiences, which is what fuels young people to work on Capitol Hill despite the low pay.
Fortunately, raising staff pay is a relatively easy matter to address. Congress has the authority to increase appropriations for this purpose and is increasingly aware of the salience of this issue.
For example, House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Hoyer affirms House will vote Sept. 27 on bipartisan infrastructure bill House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (D-Md.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesFormer Bad Boy rapper turned politician meets with US lawmakers Watch live: House Democratic leaders hold press conference Congressional staff pay is still too low MORE (D-N.Y.) led a letter to key appropriators in April requesting a 20 percent increase in office allocations to be used for staff pay. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Photos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan MORE (D-N.Y.) also led a June letter signed by more than 100 other members of Congress requesting a slightly higher increase. The House Select Committee on Modernization has explored methods of increasing staff benefits, while Issue One and other non-profit organizations have urged Congress to raise staff pay in a more full-throated manner.
The benefits of increased staff pay are higher employee retention, greater staff capacity and diminished lobbying influence. These far outweigh the drawbacks of slightly increasing one item in the federal budget dedicated to assisting such hardworking and underpaid employees. Even for debt hawks such as myself, this is an easy pill to swallow that is likely to produce cost savings down the line. While Pelosi leads her counterparts on the north side of the Capitol in addressing low staff pay head on, she would be wise to focus her incredible abilities on raising the floor on staff pay, rather than its ceiling.
After all, it is tough to credibly claim to fight for the middle class unless you are also fighting to pay your own employees a living wage.
Harry W. Baumgarten served as legislative director and counsel to members of the House of Representatives. His writings on American politics have been featured in leading domestic and international publications.