Congressional observers have a message for House lawmakers about pay raises for staff: Keep it going.
Don’t stop until legislative branch aides get parity with the executive branch, they will urge House appropriators in a letter led by groups Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network.
A major boost in the Members’ Representational Allowance, money used to fund House offices, was part of the fiscal 2022 omnibus bill. The hope was to improve staff retention, and some aides have already seen bigger checks hit their bank accounts. Others say they’re still in the dark about whether they’ll get a raise.
“Disparate staff pay rates between the branches undermine our constitutional system of checks and balances by weakening the ability of Congress to cultivate and retain the expertise necessary to oversee the executive branch,” reads the letter, which the groups plan to send next week. “Underpayment of legislative branch staff contributed to House staff leaving their jobs in 2021 at the highest rate in at least two decades.”
The letter cites an analysis by the company LegiStorm that found that the rate of House staff leaving their jobs in 2021 was 55 percent higher than the previous year. It also points to a House inspector general report from October 2021 that recommended not only a one-time boost for MRAs, but also an annual cost of living adjustment.
Last summer, House leadership accepted another recommendation from that IG report, allowing top House aides to make up to $199,300 — more than their lawmaker bosses, who earn $174,000. And the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending bill, signed by President Joe Biden in mid-March, included the much-anticipated MRA boost of 21 percent, for a total of $774.4 million. That topped the previous high-water mark of $660 million set in fiscal 2010, before it was slashed by GOP leadership seeking to rein in federal spending.
Discretionary (office) spending
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who advocated for the MRA boost to help stanch the departure of talented Hill staffers to other agencies or the private sector, said he would support continuing to adjust the funding to keep up with other parts of government.
“Everyone who serves their country, be they members of our Armed Services, congressional staffers, members of Congress, or any of the countless other honorable federal employees, should receive regular cost-of-living adjustments,” Hoyer said in a statement. “And Congress ought to be working in a bipartisan manner to ensure that happens.”
But the decentralized nature of how Congress operates makes it hard for leadership to much more than suggest how MRAs should be spent. Each member runs his or her own office and largely calls the shots.
Quarterly House disclosures of receipts and expenditures will give the public a glimpse of which offices upped pay to staff. The first report to include the new funding is expected to be April to June, which will be released within 60 days of the quarter’s end.
Staff and members who spoke with CQ Roll Call described different ways pay raises were doled out: Some offices gave everyone the same sum or percentage, while others saw larger boosts go to certain workers, like junior staff making less.
Others didn’t hear anything before April 15 — the date offices could easily adjust employee salaries for the month — and are still waiting to hear whether they may get a bump in their checks.
“I don’t know if other junior staffers got a pay bump and were asked to keep quiet,” said one House Democratic staffer. “No one is talking about it anymore, and no one is asking questions.”
The staffer, who asked to not be identified because speaking publicly could jeopardize his employment, said he had asked about how the money would be used but never got an answer. It’s made him feel disrespected, and he wants to look for another job.
“If there is no willingness to express transparency about what the increase means, it just shows you’re not that valuable,” he said.
Rep. William R. Timmons IV, who helps suggest ways to fix the legislative branch in his role as vice chair of the House Modernization Committee, said his office gave all staff a 15 percent raise.
“It’s really hard to keep people on the Hill because we just have such limited resources, so we’ve been able to increase all of our team’s salaries,” Timmons said. “Hopefully, they’ll stay longer.”
The South Carolina Republican said ModCom’s work to improve staff pay will be an important legacy of the committee, which is set to dissolve at the end of this Congress.
Staff organizations like the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, which has advocated for using the MRA money for raises, said it’s been a mixed bag for their members.
“I personally have talked to a handful of Hispanic staffers, and some got boosts but others didn’t,” said Dagoberto Acevedo, communications director for the CHSA.
About 13 percent of congressional staffers made less in 2020 than the $42,610 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says is a living wage for an adult with no children in the nation’s capital.
Making so little, and often working grueling hours, can make it particularly difficult to keep a diverse workforce when they can’t afford to live in Washington, Acevedo said. And if members choose not to pay competitive wages, or the MRA doesn’t keep up, that same churn and turnover that’s plagued the Hill may continue.
“Not utilizing these funds provided to them to boost our salaries, that doesn’t really address the issue of keeping staffers here in Congress,” he said. “And so we’re going to see similar things that we’ve seen in the previous years. Staffers are going to depart elsewhere with their talents.”