House Staffers’ Salaries Remain Stagnant, Study Notes

Posted December 21, 2010 at 3:11pm

Though top House staffers’ average salaries adjusted for inflation have not increased for two decades and comparable positions in the private sector pay much more, Member offices report few to no problems with turnover among senior staffers, according to a new study.

On average, staffers earn within a few thousand dollars of their 1990s equivalent salary, according to a Sunlight Foundation study released Tuesday.

A Representative’s personal chief of staff was paid on average more than $136,000 in 2010, with some earning as little as $65,000, according to a survey of 133 House offices released last week.

The Sunlight Foundation study found that comparable jobs in the private sector in Washington, D.C., pay an average of almost $190,000.

The trend carries over to other high-ranking staffers, too.

A House legislative director can earn about 30 percent more in the private work force while press secretaries can bump their pay by almost one half. Legislative assistants, meanwhile, can double their pay in the private sector.

That’s not to say all staff levels decreased: Earnings for chiefs of staff have increased by $30,000 on average, legislative directors’ earnings have increased by $17,000 and schedulers earn $9,000 more.

But in the most recent House Compensation Study, released last week, Members responded that they have little to no problem retaining these top staffers.

Nine out of 10 offices said they have no problem retaining chiefs of staff.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) compared staffers to soldiers in war, who believe in what they’re doing, which is why they put up with the low pay.

“There’s a true spirit of pride people take in working in the Capitol,” Cardoza said.

Seventy percent of Members did report retention problems at the staff assistant position, an entry-level job that pays about $30,000 and keeps employees in place for less than two years on average.

But while Members may not perceive a retention problem at the top, it’s there, said Daniel Schuman, the Sunlight Foundation’s policy counsel.

Chiefs of staff have been on the job for an average of less than seven years, legislative directors for about five years and legislative aides more than three years, which is lower than the retention rates in private-sector jobs, he said.

And the average age of a Washington, D.C.-based House staffer is 31 years, Schuman added, meaning people doing the policy and oversight work are inexperienced.

“People no longer want to work the crazy hours, they no longer can afford to make less money and live in a group house in D.C.,” he said. “You see this ongoing brain drain and you see people working to protect the public trust now work to influence the people they used to work for.”

Schuman’s study also found a dramatic decrease in staff levels over the last three decades; House personal office, committee and leadership staff numbers are at 87 percent of their 1979 levels, with committees taking the biggest hit, dropping from 2,027 staffers in 1979 to 1,272 in 2005.

Most of the decreases happened around 1995, when Republicans took over the House for the first time in about 40 years. And the levels may drop further moving into the 112th Congress.

Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) has promised to cut House budgets by 5 percent across the board and to shrink committees.