Resolution Expected in Pay Feud

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:24pm

Appropriators and House Administration Committee officials are at work on a plan to increase Members’ Representational Allowances after the totals given to Members last week showed just a tiny increase from last year’s numbers.

It is not yet clear where the additional money to increase the MRAs will come from, or how big the eventual increase will be. But the issue “will hopefully be resolved by Wednesday,” according to a staffer familiar with the discussions.

“They’re working right now to try to come up with the additional funding,” the staffer said.

A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed Friday that officials with the House Administration Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch are “aware of the situation and working to resolve this issue favorably.”

“The Speaker is committed to addressing the issue,” spokesman Drew Hammill said.

MRAs provide funding for Members to support their official and representational duties. The amount each office receives depends on a formula that takes into account three main expenses: personnel compensation, franked mail, and official expenses such as travel and district office rent.

Not all Members receive the same amount. Members whose districts are located farther from Washington, D.C., for example, typically receive more money because travel costs are higher. Members who live in districts with higher rental prices also can expect more of an allowance.

House Administration gave a notice to each Member office on Wednesday outlining the personalized MRA totals. Most stayed level with last year’s figures or had increases of only about 1 percent.

That news sparked an outcry from many Congressional staffers, who complained that this would be the second year in a row they would not receive a cost-of-living raise.

Neither party, in fact, seems immune to MRA controversy; a continuing resolution passed to fund the legislative branch at the end of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress kept the 2007 MRAs stagnant, as well.

Still, the MRA issue caused a rift in the normally friendly relationship between House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

Ehlers refused to sign the letters given to Members, arguing that money needed to be reallocated from other projects to give staffers raises.

On Friday, an Ehlers spokeswoman said the Congressman is hopeful that the issue will be resolved soon.

“The ranking member simply wants to ensure that Member offices are provided with sufficient funds to adequately compensate the hard-working staff here on Capitol Hill,” said spokeswoman Salley Collins. “We don’t understand why that was not a top priority for the majority and sincerely hope that they can resolve this situation.”

The MRA funding process is complicated. The money originally is allocated in the legislative branch appropriations bill, and it is up to House Administration to adjust the formula used to fund MRAs. That panel sometimes does so to reflect wage adjustments for federal workers and to make other necessary inflationary adjustments, for example.

This year’s MRA funds came from the omnibus spending measure, which included the legislative branch. Appropriators allocated about $580 million for MRAs in fiscal 2008, which is technically about a 4.5 percent increase compared with the $555 million allocated in fiscal 2007.

It still is unclear why the actual MRAs were so small, although some officials have said increased office costs and other budget constraints forced the House finance office to advise minimal increases after House Administration received the allocation.

More than $610 million had originally been requested to fund the MRAs.

Despite the chatter on Capitol Hill about the MRA issue, Pelosi seemed generally surprised when asked about it at a press conference last week.

“Why would they say staff is not getting a cost of living? I don’t know what you are talking about,” Pelosi said at a pen-and-pad briefing on Thursday. She then asked a member of her staff: “Do you know?”

Pelosi later said she would follow up.

“The one thing for sure is that the staff is such a tremendous resource not only to the Congress, but to the American people,” she said at the briefing. “And we value the enormous contribution they make, and we want it to be recognized in a way that is more than psychic, but is translated in the market.”

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.