Staffers got raises in the House. Now it’s the Senate’s turn, says Schatz

‘You shouldn’t already have to be wealthy in order to serve here,’ Hawaii Democrat says

“The Senate for too long has underpaid its workers,” says
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“The Senate for too long has underpaid its workers,” says Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 16, 2022 at 6:00am

Sen. Brian Schatz doesn’t want the Senate to get left behind after a year of House action aimed at improving staff retention.

The Hawaii Democrat, who has championed the cause in the past, sent a letter to Senate Legislative Branch appropriators pushing for a 20 percent bump to the allowance that senators use to pay their staffers.

It could be a long shot, since Republicans seem reluctant to hike office budgets again after providing a modest increase last year of 5 percent. But Schatz argued that as senators sit down to make decisions about fiscal 2023 spending, paying their employees a living wage should be a priority.

“This is not a place to get wealthy,” he said. “But you shouldn’t already have to be wealthy in order to serve here.”

The increase would help slow the Hill brain drain and recruit newcomers, Schatz wrote in the letter, signed by 14 other Democrats and addressed to Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jack Reed and ranking member Mike Braun.

Years of skimping have led to a dire situation, the Democrats wrote, with staffers essentially seeing pay cuts “due to inadequate cost of living adjustments that did not keep up with inflation.” And at the bottom of the professional ladder, staff assistants and other junior employees are barely hanging on.

The proposal would amount to a bump of roughly $97 million for Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Accounts, which cover things like staff salaries, office supplies and travel.

In a separate letter, Schatz called for at least $7 million in new dedicated funding to pay interns who work for Senate committees.

Reed told reporters this week he had received the letters but would make no promises. “We’re going to look at it,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “We’re still trying to find the topline number.”

And Republicans have already sounded a cautionary note.

“At a time when everything costs so much for people around the country, I’m not sure it’s the wisest moment to be increasing congressional office budgets,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Legislative Branch subcommittee.

Staffers who spoke to CQ Roll Call agreed the optics are tough.

“A boost in staff salaries is warranted to keep pace with rising rent and grocery costs,” said one GOP Senate staffer who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “But an increase of that magnitude would be inappropriate and ill-timed on the verge of a likely recession.”

But the stakes are high, others said, and senators should get serious about improving recruitment and retention, which has everything to do with diversity.

“This funding is also critical for offices to increase their capacity to serve their constituents and offer competitive salaries that will help with the recruitment and retention of staff of color,” said Ruby Robles, a Democratic staffer and vice president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association.

Last year, lawmakers approved $486.3 million for senators to spend on their offices, an increase of about 5 percent over fiscal 2021 levels.

The House took more drastic action, pumping up their office budgets by 21 percent. The two chambers make separate decisions about spending on each side of the Capitol.

Other recent moves on the House side include a new pay floor of $45,000 and a ceiling of $203,700, meaning staffers can now potentially earn more than their bosses. The House also approved a resolution in May allowing staff to unionize. 

Schatz did not include minimum and maximum salaries in his call to action for the Senate. But “it’s something members are talking about and we’re open to,” he said. 

On the issue of pay for interns, Schatz wants to see the Senate set aside a pot of money to pay committee interns, much like it has since 2019 for interns in members’ personal offices.

“We did the arithmetic, and this will allow at least a stipend for each individual intern,” he said of the $7 million figure. 

The Indian Affairs Committee, which Schatz leads, already pays its interns, his office said. Much like the intern money provided to each member office, which is based on variables like a state’s population, the new funding would depend on the size and budget of the committee. 

While the appropriations process is already in full swing on the House side of the Capitol, with lawmakers adopting a discretionary spending cap of $1.6 trillion, leaders in the House and Senate have not agreed on how to divide money among the dozen spending bills, or even what the total topline should be.

“We’re a long way from that,” said Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby when asked Monday about whether negotiators are close to agreement.

Even if the extra money for offices makes it all the way through the process, lawmakers have a lot of leeway to set policies and pay levels for their own workers. There’s no guarantee it would be spent on salary bumps that would solve the Senate’s hiring and retention problems.

For Schatz, though, it’s worth trying.

“The Senate for too long has underpaid its workers, and that’s not just unfair to the workers — it also impacts the product,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone can afford to be in public service.”