Being a member of Congress definitely has its perks, but after a decade of being on the job with no raise, former Rep. Gregg Harper said enough was enough.
Harper, a Mississippi Republican who served in the House from 2009 to 2019, said stagnant pay, restrictions on outside income and family pressures ultimately influenced his decision to retire. Harper’s son Livingston lives with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition linked to various developmental problems including learning disabilities.
“I’ve never said this publicly until today,” he told the House Modernization Committee on Wednesday. “One of the key factors was, I knew that if I stayed I would not be able to take care of my son and my family, and so I had to at least have the opportunity to try to make more money.”
Observers have sounded the alarm in recent years as more staffers quit their Hill jobs, but less time has been spent pondering why members of Congress decide to leave. The so-called “Fix Congress” committee heard from three experts who pointed to reasons like relatively modest pay, hostile coworkers and a feeling of futility.
And those same factors can shrink the pool of willing candidates, discouraging people from running for federal office in the first place.
“Understanding why qualified people don’t run for Congress is just as important as understanding why they do,” said Chairman Derek Kilmer.
Though some may quibble that Congress is different from other office cultures, the Hill is still very much a workplace. And few employees want to work in a toxic environment with grueling hours, constant travel and a barrage of deeply personal attacks.
“Oftentimes when I’m engaging my constituents, they ask me how I’m doing as though I’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease,” the Washington Democrat said. “It’s not because of the compensation, it’s because of the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall here.”
That feeling of gridlock and working in an institution that’s become partially paralyzed makes service feel less rewarding, said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
She said moderate members who work behind the scenes to try to get legislation passed feel outshone by members who use their position as a “platform for performance.”
“The kinds of members that Congress is losing to retirement are the kinds of members who have spent a long time here building reputations as hard legislative workers,” she said.
Reynolds has been a “frequent flyer” in front of the committee sometimes referred to as ModCom, which prides itself on collegiality and has members sit around a table to encourage discussion during hearings, instead of perched on a dais. During his introduction Wednesday, Kilmer made good on past jokes that Reynolds’ frequent appearances would one day earn her a free coffee.
“Congratulations, we’re calling that the Reynolds latte,” he said, handing her a cup.
Steven Rogelberg, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor who studies management and psychology, said that despite Congress’ unique power, the people who work there are just that — people.
And those humans should focus more on the “small wins,” Rogelberg said. Without small moments of success, employees will never feel like they’re accomplishing anything — and that’s especially true when Congress passes such massive bills and very few pieces of standalone legislation.
“That’s what is so critical for retention, that feeling of success and accomplishment,” he said.
Sometimes the decision to move on just comes down to the bottom line — and the thorny topic of member pay came up again and again.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi made several pay-related moves this year at the staff level, some first recommended by ModCom. The House now has a minimum salary for House staff, and senior staff can earn more than their bosses. Members of Congress are paid $174,000, and members of leadership like the speaker of the House earn $223,500. The rate has been frozen since 2009.
Complaining about salaries that high can make them seem like whiners, especially when most Americans earn much less. But lawmakers whisper about the costs of maintaining two residences — one in their home district and one in D.C. — and privately acknowledge that money can be a deciding factor.
“Gregg, your story is my story. And I hate to say it, but I’m going to miss guys like Rodney Davis. He hits me all the time, but this is a wonderful place,” Perlmutter said to Harper.
He spoke of the importance of his job, but cited some of the financial pressures and expressed frustration that nothing has changed on pay and other benefits like health care despite his attempts.
If it stays this way, Harper could see a future where the legislature is made up of people even less representative of the people it governs.
“We are approaching the point that only independently wealthy individuals will be able to serve,” he said.
Harper said he gave up nearly $350,000 in legal fees when leaving his job as an attorney to take office.
Finding new ways for members to responsibly earn income outside Congress could help, he said. He even proposed that members change the rules to give themselves a per diem and boost pay to mirror federal district and court of appeals judges, who earn $223,400 and $236,900 per year, respectively.
“If it’s the right thing to do for the institution, let’s just do it,” he said. “We’re going to be hated no matter what, so let’s just do what’s right.”