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Congressional compensation: Isn’t there a select committee for that?

Panel tasked with modernizing Congress will look at staff but not member issues

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chairman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress meeting in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chairman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress meeting in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As lawmakers engage in a contentious debate about whether to thaw a decadelong freeze on their pay, there’s a logical place where the underlying issues of member compensation and housing could be addressed — the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. 

But the panel currently has no plans to take up such matters, its chairman, Rep. Derek Kilmer, and vice chairman, Rep. Tom Graves, told CQ Roll Call. 

“The issues around staff, recruitment, retention and the diversity of staff has really been the focus … from a personnel standpoint,” said Kilmer, a Washington Democrat. 

Those staff issues were among seven broad areas the select committee was tasked with looking at, Kilmer said. The others include rules, schedule and calendar, shared services like purchasing, franking and communications and technology. 

“We were assigned a whole bunch of things that are going to be hard to get through in one year as it is,” Kilmer said in explaining why looking at member compensation isn’t on the select committee’s to-do list.

“We have a lot of very challenging ideas and concepts to work through. But they require a two-thirds vote. … So we’re looking at doable items that we can work through right now,” said Graves, a Georgia Republican. 

While member housing has come up in recommendations to the select committee about areas it should examine, member pay and a proposed cost-of-living adjustment have not, Kilmer and Graves said. 

Members of Congress will have to decide as they approach the fiscal 2020 funding deadline at the end of September whether to lift a longstanding ban on applying a cost-of-living adjustment to their salaries. To keep members from getting a 2.6 percent, or $4,500, raise starting in January, Congress would have to include language blocking the COLA in either the Legislative Branch or the Financial Services appropriations bills. 

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, the leading proponent of the increase, is hoping to bring both bills to the floor as soon as next week without the pay freeze provision and has been talking to members on both sides of the aisle to get them to back the COLA. 

When CQ Roll Call asked Hoyer recently about whether the select committee should look at the broader issues surrounding member compensation, the Maryland Democrat said he doubts the panel could come up with recommendations to make the matter less toxic. 

“I don’t really think there’s a way to avoid members having to stand up and tell the public ‘I’m for this,’” he said. “And that’s why I want to have a vote.”

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‘Fair thing to do’

While Hoyer said “there was some discussion about, ‘Well, just let it go,’ on both sides of the aisle,” he declined to name the members who want the House to just drop the issue this year. He appears determined to marshal the COLA through, despite resistance in pockets of both parties.

“The fact of the matter is a majority of members, overwhelming majority of members, think this is the fair thing to do for themselves and for federal employees,” Hoyer said. (Under current law, staff salaries cannot exceed member salaries.)

Even if the COLA advances in the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his chamber will not take it up, putting the two majority leaders on a collision course.  

Uncertainty over whether the COLA can be adopted this year is just one issue in a much broader debate about who can serve in Congress. Electability is obviously the ultimate determination, but before potential candidates even decide to run, they need to consider other factors like whether they can afford to maintain two residences — one in their district and one in Washington — on a congressional salary. 

“I can’t help but notice we’re spending a lot of time talking about recruiting talented staff and retaining talented staff,” Rep. Rob Woodall said Thursday during the select committee’s hearing on those staff issues. “There’s been no discussion about recruiting talented congressmen and retaining talented congressmen. I say that only partially tongue in cheek.”

After the hearing, the Georgia Republican said it’s ultimately up to the voters to decide what kind of Congress they want, but to ensure the body is open to a diversity of perspectives, members and their staffs should at least be paid wages comparable to other federal employees.

“I think we do benefit from having young families here,” Woodall said. “We benefit from having retired folks who’ve come back into public service. We benefit from having blue-collar families here. We benefit from having the wildly successful members here.”

While the select committee is not planning to directly discuss member compensation, panel member Mark Pocan said he wouldn’t rule out recommendations on other related issues such as member housing and the schedule that dictates the amount of time they spend traveling between their districts and Washington.

“There are a number of us who are kind of tired of the rising escalation of a race to take us down,” the Wisconsin Democrat said, citing frustration with member pensions, salary and privacy. “At some point you can’t have a workplace where you work together when you have the conditions that we have.”

Still, Pocan and other members agree that staff pay and other issues related to recruiting and retaining a talented congressional workforce are a priority over member compensation issues. 

But even addressing staff compensation will be no easy feat. When Pocan and others tried to ask the three witnesses at the hearing Thursday about recommendations for improving staff pay, they all paused awkwardly, no one eager to answer. 

Alexander Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the society for Human Resource Management, finally jumped in to say that lawmakers would need to consider other benefits that can be viewed as compensation in addition to standard salaries. 

“Find ways to hit that motivational sweet spot,” he said.

Kilmer, when asked if the select committee would be willing to tackle member compensation if leadership decided not to deal with it through the appropriations bills this year, expressed a hesitant openness. 

“We’re going to try to take up everything we get assigned,” he said. “But bear in mind to make a recommendation out of our committee, it takes a two-thirds vote. So inherently there’s a high bar toward making recommendations, which I think is appropriate because we’re trying to make systemic changes to how this place functions.”

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