Skip to content

Nearly 8 percent of Senate aides make less than a living wage, report finds

But pay has improved since 2020, especially in the House, according to transparency group Issue One

Pay has improved for entry-level congressional staffers in recent years, but 7.6 percent of Senate aides still made below a living wage in 2023, according to a new report from Issue One. Above, staffers stand on balconies of the Russell Senate Office Building to view the solar eclipse on April 8.
Pay has improved for entry-level congressional staffers in recent years, but 7.6 percent of Senate aides still made below a living wage in 2023, according to a new report from Issue One. Above, staffers stand on balconies of the Russell Senate Office Building to view the solar eclipse on April 8. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Working for Congress is a lot of things: exciting at times, boring during others; sometimes honorable, sometimes less so; equal parts an ego trip and ego check. But no one says it’s a particularly lucrative line of work. For decades, getting your start on the Hill also meant getting your start on some serious credit card debt. 

But a new report on congressional staff pay from Issue One suggests things have improved dramatically in recent years, finding that the percentage of aides working for less than a living wage has fallen since 2020. 

Congress boosted the Members’ Representational Allowance, or MRA, which includes staff payrolls, by 21 percent in fiscal 2022. And that same year, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi implemented a pay floor for House staff that set a $45,000 minimum salary. 

Those moves, plus increases to senators’ office budgets, came shortly after Issue One released an initial report that found about 13 percent of all staff made less than a living wage, including 70 percent of entry-level staff assistants.

Relying on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator to determine the cost of eking it out in D.C., along with wage data from LegiStorm, the new report found remarkable improvements. Hill staffers earning below a living wage dropped to just 4.6 percent in 2023, including 28 percent of staff assistants.

The shift was more dramatic in the House, where 2.8 percent of staff fall below the living wage threshold, compared with 7.6 percent of Senate aides; for staff assistants, those figures are 20 percent and 40 percent, respectively.  

“The typical House staff assistant now makes roughly $4,500 more per year than the typical Senate staff assistant,” the report notes.

“The pay floor that the House of Representatives instituted in September 2022 has helped improve the lives of House staffers,” said the report’s lead author, Michael Beckel, a research director at Issue One. “The Senate should follow the House’s leadership and implement a pay floor.”

Ensuring staffers can afford the necessities of life in an expensive city like Washington doesn’t merely make their lives better, Beckel said. “For far too long the lowest-paid congressional staffers have endured a lot of economic hardship that closes the door for a lot of folks to even consider these types of entry-level positions,” he said.

In a written statement, Pelosi echoed that logic. “With a competitive salary minimum, the House has been better able to retain and recruit excellent, diverse talent who may not have been able to afford to do so in the past,” she said. “I was proud to take this step as Speaker to help bring a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives to every level of service in these hallowed halls — so that the Congress has access to the top talent in the nation and that our institution better reflects the people we serve.”

Until recently, if you wanted to get a start on the Hill and didn’t have family money to help you cover rent, you had two options: go into credit card debt or find a second job. Neither choice was particularly appealing for recent college grads already staring down five to six figures of student loan debt, which effectively shut the door for many would-be staffers. 

“These are measures that can really help ensure that a diverse cohort of Americans are able to access these opportunities on Capitol Hill, [so they] are not just going into credit card debt or relying on family wealth to take these entry-level jobs,” said Beckel. 

Those socioeconomic disparities are also reflected in the racial makeup of top congressional staff, which is whiter than the rest of the nation. And they contribute to burnout, a well-documented issue among staff, which ultimately exacerbates the Hill’s brain drain. That, in turn, reduces congressional capacity to delve deeply, and independently from the armies of ex-staffer lobbyists, on the intricate issues that lawmakers must tackle — which is itself a problem that is about to get worse if the Supreme Court throws out a judicial doctrine of deferring to regulatory agencies’ interpretation of ambiguous statutes, as most observers expect.

In addition to getting the Senate to set its own minimum salary, Beckel said Congress should look to index staff pay to inflation and continue to invest more in the legislative branch’s budget. The report also urged Congress to pay workers more frequently — House staffers get monthly paychecks, whereas most employees get paid biweekly — to reinstitute the recently disbanded House Office of Diversity and Inclusion and to increase pay for interns, who until recently mostly worked for free.

Until those chamber- or Capitol-wide changes happen, Beckel added, there’s nothing keeping individual representatives or senators from using their office allotments fully to pay their workers better, even if members like to make a show of staying under budget. “They don’t need to wait,” he said.