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Pay debate raging on Capitol Hill ignores lowest-earning staffers

Boosting MRA would do most to address pay woes, Hill aides say

Boosting member pay could translate to higher salary caps for staffers, as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has pointed out. But what about those who make the least? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Boosting member pay could translate to higher salary caps for staffers, as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has pointed out. But what about those who make the least? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While Congress tussles over whether a legislative spending bill should allow a salary boost for lawmakers, their staffers agree that the Members’ Representational Allowance — which pays House staff salaries — needs more funding.

House Democrats this month pulled the Legislative Branch appropriations bill amid backlash from Republican campaign strategists and members of their own caucus.

The cost-of-living adjustment allowed in that bill would have increased member pay 2.6 percent, or $4,500, starting in January 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most members make $174,000 — with the exception of certain leadership positions — and haven’t seen an increase in a decade.

For many staffers, maximum salaries have been unchanged since 2009 and remain below what members make.

MRA vs inflation-1-01

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has cited the cost of living in D.C. and provisions that prevent employees from earning more than members as reasons to raise congressional pay.

“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,” the Maryland Democrat said earlier this month, something that prevents attracting “the best and brightest.”

Democratic and Republican staffers who spoke with CQ Roll Call differ on member pay, but all viewed funding the Members’ Representational Allowance as a higher priority than member pay. 

Members of the House receive an MRA that allows them to pay for three main areas: personnel, office expenses (which includes travel to and from districts and varies accordingly) and official mail. Senators have a different mechanism, the Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account. This story focuses on House MRAs. 

For a variety of reasons, from their own privacy to fear of reprisal or just not wanting to get in front of the boss, these staffers asked not to be identified so they could speak candidly. 

“It does piss me off,” a Republican staffer who makes under $40,000 said. “Why are they just getting an increase, when we’re a full institution and we help them?”

Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said in a statement that “boosting the MRA is the most direct way to address the current problems with congressional staff pay. The current House office budget is 15 percent lower than it was in 2010. This means that congressional staff are paid lower than employees with equivalent experience in the private sector and executive branch.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, ranking member of the House Administration Committee and a former staffer himself, said he agrees with those who think increasing the MRA is a good way of keeping staffers on Capitol Hill.

“Retention issues can be solved, they’re right, by MRA issues,” the Illinois Republican said.

“I’ve supported increases in the MRA for the last few years, and I’ll continue to work. That’s been a very bipartisan issue,” Davis said.

A slippery slope

The Legislative Branch appropriations bill recommends $602.3 million for fiscal 2020, a $28.6 million increase over 2019. But funding for MRAs  would still be below its peak, which hit $660 million in 2010, according to a January Congressional Research Service report.

The report also estimates that the 2019 MRA funding level of $573.6 million is approximately 13 percent below the 2010 funding level, not adjusted for inflation.

Staff pay levels have also gone down, according to a CRS report on staff pay levels for 15 selected positions in House offices last updated on June 11.

Out of those 15 roles, CRS found that from 2001 to 2018 the median pay for 10 positions — based on constant 2019 dollars — decreased by at least 5 percent. Four of those salaries increased, including a caseworker role with an increase of 9.49 percent. There was no data for the position of counsel in that data set.

The positions that experienced the starkest median pay decrease over that time were office manager (-23.92 percent), communications director (-19.45 percent) and executive assistant (-19.12 percent). Members of Congress were also included in the table and saw a substantial decrease in median pay (-15.43 percent).

Comparatively, General Schedule employees in D.C. saw an 8.19 percent increase, and General Schedule employees across the rest of the U.S. experienced a decrease of 0.34 percent over that same time frame.

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Not ‘just a job’

Among the staffers who spoke with CQ Roll Call, there is a consensus that the MRA is underfunded.

“Increasing or doing away with the staff maximum is one way to help this issue, but the broader problem is that the MRA is only so big,” said a Democratic legislative assistant who makes under $50,000 a year. “The MRA should be so much bigger than it is. That’s the problem.”

A Republican aide also suggested upping MRA funding.

“Maybe increase the MRA,” said the communications director for a Midwestern Republican. “Give more funds to offices because offices are vastly under-resourced to accommodate the full needs of a district.”

A Democratic staffer familiar with the operations of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress said one of the panel’s priorities is to overhaul staff pay and member resources.

“The House needs to figure out a way to make it easier for people to pursue this line of work in an effort to support them, and that’s really the bottom line,” she said.

A Republican staffer said money is not what draws people to Capitol Hill.

“Ultimately, what draws people here is service to the country. It has to be the right reasons,” he said. “People do these jobs to serve, not to make a lot of money.”

One Democratic aide makes $2,400 a month and lives in a two-bedroom residence with a roommate near Capitol Hill. He supplements his income by bartending. But his passion for working in government is the driving factor behind not seeking out a more lucrative profession.

“The thing that keeps me going is that this is the only job that I’ve ever wanted, and it feels that it matters everyday, even if you don’t get paid what you think you’re worth,” he said.

Asked if lobbying would be something of interest, he said it could be, but not in the near future.

“I wouldn’t give a s––t. It would just be a job,” he said.

A Democratic staffer who has close to $100,000 in student loan debt said she understands why people leave for K Street, despite benefits like the federal student loan repayment program.

“You can’t retain staff when the salaries are what they are and you get a lobbying check thrown in your face,” she said. “You’ve got bills to pay and you can’t fault anybody for going into that field, especially when you are siloed into a certain income bracket working in this job for however long you are.”

Another Democratic aide with $90,000 in student loan debt who uses the federal repayment program took a $10,000 pay cut to work on Capitol Hill because it was a career goal.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere else for a big pay cut,” he said, citing the loan program, which pays up to $10,000 per year off student debt, as an attractive component.

A Republican staffer with $12,000 in student debt opts not to use the repayment program because he doesn’t want to burden taxpayers with subsidizing his student loans.

“We’re here for the opportunity to serve our constituents and that’s the main thing,” he said. “The opportunities you have here are so unique, you cannot replicate them anywhere else.”

Working on the Hill is about budgeting and working up the ranks, according to a Republican staffer who arrived a decade ago. He said he lived near the end of a Metro line and walked a mile to the train from his residence he shared with roommates.

“I was committed to making it in Washington,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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