House Democrats are making moves to lift the pay freeze that lawmakers have been living under since 2010. But the top Senate appropriator is not on board.
House appropriators released their Financial Services fiscal 2020 spending bill earlier this week, striking a provision that blocked members or Congress from receiving an increase in pay that Republicans included in previous Legislative Branch spending bills. The salary for rank-and-file House and Senate lawmakers is $174,000, but those with official leadership titles and responsibilities make more.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, whose leadership title brings his income up to $193,400, said he supports the move.
“That was taken to court; the court ruled it was not a pay raise, it was an adjustment on an annual basis for inflation,” the Maryland Democrat said Tuesday during a pen-and-pad briefing with reporters.
Hoyer said that if it was, in fact, a pay raise, it would not be able to take effect until the next Congress. He cited the cost of housing in the District of Columbia as well as provisions that prevent staff from earning more than a member as two reasons to allow the pay increase to move forward.
The District’s median 2018 rent of $1,550 for a two-bedroom apartment was well above the national average of $1,180. And lawmakers must maintain a residence in their home state or district, which adds to housing costs.
“The salary that we receive is a decent salary — there’s no doubt about that. But one problem is that under the law, employees are capped. They can’t go above members of Congress. What you’ve got to understand … is that’s not only having an effect on members of Congress, it’s compressing salary structure,” Hoyer said.
But Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Monday he’s unlikely to support that House spending provision that would provide a pay raise for lawmakers.
“I think the American people would think that Congress ought to earn it first,” the Alabama Republican said.
In November 2009, congressional Democrats in the majority, sensing the early swells of voter discontent that eventually grew into a GOP tidal wave, decided it was politically prudent for lawmakers to agree to live through the 2010 election year without any change in their $174,000 annual salaries. That meant forgoing a $2,600 cost-of-living increase, based on a government calculation of wage gains in the private sector.
Since then, appropriators have written into law that no pay raises would be given to members. That has saved lawmakers from the dicey position of being asked to affirmatively vote to put more money in their own pockets.
But some members have previously spoken up in favor of a salary boost.
“The American people should know the members of Congress are underpaid,” former Rep. James P. Moran told CQ Roll Call in 2014. The Virginia Democrat pitched a “very modest” housing stipend to help cover the high cost of living in the District — $25 for each day the House is in session, or about $2,800 annually.
The following year, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings also called for a boost.
“Members deserve to be paid, staff deserves to be paid, and the cost of living here is causing serious problems for people who are not wealthy to serve in this institution,” the Florida Democrat said at a Rules Committee meeting. “We aren’t being paid properly.”
More recently, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought up the unpopularity of lawmaker raises, which she said incentivizes policy decisions that keep lobbying loopholes open.
“It is understandably unpopular to discuss giving Congress any raises or perks – & bc of that, there’s incentive to keep $ loopholes open,” the New York Democrat tweeted last week.
She also brought up the idea of providing dorms to lawmakers to make the steep housing costs more manageable.
“Some people have brought up Congressional dorms — certainly a possibility. This does happen informally; lots of members live in the same building/apt. Key to any solution (dorm, stipend, w/e) is compatibility w family/spouse — many work overtime, unrecognized, to support members,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.