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As budget cuts loom, group warns of effects on House staff pay

High turnover and brain drain on the Hill are possible effects of steep reductions

“If we go to pre-fiscal year 2022 levels, 2021 saw the highest turnover for congressional staff in recorded history,” said Taylor J. Swift, senior policy adviser for Demand Progress, one of the groups protesting a Republican proposal to return spending to fiscal 2022 levels.
“If we go to pre-fiscal year 2022 levels, 2021 saw the highest turnover for congressional staff in recorded history,” said Taylor J. Swift, senior policy adviser for Demand Progress, one of the groups protesting a Republican proposal to return spending to fiscal 2022 levels. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan coalition of 25 advocacy groups, think tanks and individuals is warning of a “crisis for staff” if Republicans roll back discretionary spending that had boosted pay for House staffers.

Republicans are seeking to return spending to fiscal 2022 levels, which would gut pay increases that some say were long overdue. 

During his quest for the speakership, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in January agreed to the 2022 topline cap, which would cut more than $130 billion from funding enacted for the current fiscal year. The House Freedom Caucus this month introduced the plan that would make those cuts.

Rolling back funding could mean significant reduction in Members Representational Allowance, or MRA, which is allocated to fund House offices and staff pay, according to Taylor J. Swift, senior policy adviser for Demand Progress, one of the groups protesting the Republican proposal.

According to Swift and others involved in the effort to preserve staff pay, MRA funding has consistently lagged inflation, contributed to high turnover and led to brain drain on the Hill.

“If we go to pre-fiscal year 2022 levels, 2021 saw the highest turnover for congressional staff in recorded history,” Swift said in an interview. “Partially that was due to how difficult it was for people to get paid a livable wage. Rolling that MRA number back, especially after the year-plus of inflation that we’ve seen, would be pretty detrimental to the institution. Congressional staff are essential for the operations of the Capitol.”

Demand Progress and the others sent a letter Monday to House leadership and appropriators on the issue of MRA funding, the same day the White House called the Freedom Caucus’ proposal — which offers support for raising the debt ceiling in exchange for the budget cap — a “five-alarm fire.”

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Monday released a series of letters from executive branch agency heads outlining the potential harms of rolling back funding to fiscal 2022 levels.

“Those that seek to cut essential programs by at least 22 percent — and those that are pushing even more drastic cuts of 30 percent or more — would cause irreparable damage to our communities by gutting the programs every single American relies on,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Those proposals are unrealistic, unsustainable, and unconscionable.”

With budget cuts looming, Swift and others worry that the legislative branch — and MRA funding — could be particularly vulnerable. The legislative branch budget is typically the smallest of the 12 federal funding bills and doesn’t directly impact constituents.

“It’s always the lowest salience,” Swift said.

Kevin R. Kosar, a senior fellow at the center-right American Enterprise Institute and a signee of the letter, said not many interest groups fight for legislative branch funding, whereas cuts to the Department of Agriculture or Department of Defense bring people “out of the woodwork.”

Failure to attract and retain top staff has come at a steep cost, he said.

Kosar, who edited a 2020 book on Congress’ decadeslong failure to fund itself and the ways in which it is handicapping the legislature, said the average staffer turns over somewhere between three and four years of service. 

“At the point where they’re actually really learning their jobs, they quit,” Kosar said. “Which means you have to bring in brand new people and train them from scratch.”

“There’s a through line between the ability to pay staffers to do competent work and the ability for Congress to perform its job,” added Donald K. Sherman, senior vice president and chief counsel at Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, which signed the letter.

Individual MRA authorizations were cut significantly between 2010 and 2013 and were either flat-funded or received 1 percent boosts between 2013 and 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service. Only in recent years has more money been allocated to the MRA and staff pay. 

The fiscal 2022 omnibus allocated $744.4 million in MRA funding, a 21 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. It was the largest year-over-year increase since MRAs were authorized in 1996, according to a bill summary released at the time by the House Appropriations Committee. In the fiscal 2023 omnibus, MRA funding received another significant bump, to $810 million.

Along with that, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May set a new minimum salary of $45,000 for full-time workers. 

Staffers, as a result, are earning more. 

Median House staffer pay increased to $72,200 last year, up from $59,600 the year before, according to a LegiStorm analysis. But the extra MRA funds weren’t used across the board.

Nearly two out of five offices didn’t use a single dollar of their MRA increase, LegiStorm found in a separate analysis. The average office disclosed spending 84 percent of its fiscal 2022 funds, with Democrats using roughly $95,000 more per office on average than Republicans. 

“There are some offices that regularly pride themselves on being able to say, ‘We didn’t spend all our money,’” Kosar said. “My response to that is, are you shifting some of the work on to the Congressional Research Service? Are you just not doing as much for your constituents?”

Any cuts to the MRA could also be detrimental to attracting and retaining diverse candidates, especially at the junior staffer level, according to Habiba Mohamed, federal affairs manager at Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group that also signed the letter.

Without help from family, or a side hustle, it’s difficult to live on a $45,000 salary in Washington, which Mohamed said closes the door on candidates from less affluent backgrounds who might otherwise be interested in a career on the Hill.

The Congressional Progressive Staff Association, which was not involved in the letter but has long advocated for better staff pay, concurred. 

“Poor compensation is one of the biggest challenges for our membership, and it also poses major barriers to recruitment, diversity, and retention,” CPSA spokesperson Zoe Bluffstone said in a statement. “CPSA believes that any efforts to cut or redirect the MRA would be a major blow to the financial stability of staff and could lead to a major exodus off the Hill.”

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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