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Do members of Congress need a pay raise? After 15 years, some say yes.

Year in and year out, Congress finds a way to boost salaries for most hard-working employees of the federal government.

The House approved a Pentagon policy bill Friday that included a proposed 19.5 percent pay raise for junior members of the military. Earlier this year a massive spending bill allowed federal judges to receive raises worth at least $11,000, setting their minimum salary at $243,000.

Two years ago, lawmakers doled out a 21 percent increase to the pot of money lawmakers use to pay their congressional staff and helped hundreds of junior aides reach the “living wage” status, according to a new report.

Everyone gets a raise — that is, except for the lawmakers themselves.

It’s been 15 years since members of the House and Senate allowed their federally mandated cost-of-living adjustment (often referred to as COLA) to take effect. Since then, their pay has been set at $174,000.

Out of political fear from voters in both their primary and general elections, lawmakers have repeatedly inserted language into government funding bills that prohibits their COLA from taking effect, as happened again late Thursday night in the House Appropriations Committee.

The net result has been a drastic pay cut — at least in terms of buying power — to members over the last 15 years, particularly given the rapid inflation of the last three years and the soaring cost of living in Washington. This has sent many lawmakers toward retirement exits over the last decade as they grow frustrated with the dysfunction inside the Capitol and reap much higher wages in the private sector’s influence industry.

With no end in sight, House leaders tried to create a partial remedy to the problem at the end of 2022 by allowing lawmakers to be reimbursed for lodging and meal expenses while on official business in Washington.

This well-intended program, meant to resemble the type of per-diem programs used by most state legislatures, went off the rails in implementation. It failed to set up enough structure and does not even require members to file receipts for their expenses. As The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany, Clara Ence Morse and Liz Goodwin reported, more than 300 lawmakers tapped into the funds, including three who collected more than $40,000 worth of benefits. Some now face questions about whether they received inappropriate payments.

Hoping to create a program that would avoid the political pain of voting for a salary increase, members of the House used administrative fiat that opened a semi-secretive fund that has little public disclosure and might draw political scrutiny.

For Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the third longest-serving member of the House, the answer is plain and simple: Give lawmakers a raise.

“Let us have the self-respect to make sure that it’s not just the rich that can serve in the Congress of the United States,” Hoyer said during Thursday’s Appropriations Committee meeting.

In a political odd-couple moment, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), a far-right member who often clashes with Democrats, kicked off the salary debate by declaring the move to block a COLA raise as unconstitutional. He wants the pay raises to happen unless there is an actual bill that is voted on by the full Congress, as was the intent of a 1989 law that set up the process for paying members of Congress and the federal judiciary.

Hoyer jumped up to say that it might be the first time he had ever agreed with Clyde on something. With lawmakers required to maintain two residences, Hoyer noted that 15 years ago the average one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill cost $1,100.

“Today that figure is closer to $2,300 — otherwise known as twice as much,” he said, adding that he is going to work with Republicans to try to fix this.

The two did not force a vote on the matter, as it was likely to fail, but the murmurs in the room indicated that just about every lawmaker agreed with their points. They simply fear how allowing a pay raise, at a time when Congress is so unpopular, might anger their constituents.

It’s no coincidence that the five-member Board of Supervisors for Los Angeles County includes two members who formerly served in the House. They now make about $280,000 — at least $100,000 more than when they served in Congress.

Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) quit the House in late April and announced less than three weeks later that he was taking a job with a venture capital firm, just two months after turning 40. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) quit a year ago and took a job paying triple his salary working for a powerful, well-funded nonprofit.

At least lawmakers are trying to address the brain drain, caused by financial stress, among their aides.

A new report by Issue One, a nonpartisan group trying to make Congress function better, calculated a “living wage” as something that provides “minimum subsistence.” That level in Washington was a little more than $42,000 in 2020 and almost $49,000 last year.

In 2020, 13 percent of all aides in the House and Senate fell below the living wage. About 70 percent of “staff assistants,” which is usually the first job a new college graduate can hope to obtain, fell below that marker.

Fearing that Congress was becoming a place where only the children of the wealthy could afford to work, members of the House agreed to set a new minimum salary of $45,000 and boosted the overall pot of money for staff salaries.

By the end of 2023, less than 5 percent of all aides fell below a living wage. A majority of them work in the Senate, where no minimum salary exists.

These pay hikes were part of nearly 200 recommendations from the select committee on modernizing Congress. The panel’s leaders, Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and William Timmons (R-S.C.), gathered with a dozen staff and Issue One supporters in a meeting Friday to talk about how better pay could lead to more economic diversity among aides.

Timmons told the story of a senior aide recently leaving his office after an offer to double his salary from a downtown lobbying shop.

“I was like, ‘Take me with you,’” Timmons joked.

That’s why another key change two years ago allowed the most senior staff to make more money than the $174,000 given to members, something that had long been considered verboten since staff are not elected officials.

By the end of 2023, 228 aides made more than $200,000 a year, according to Issue One, with another 555 making between $180,000 and $200,000.

About 1 in 10 aides now make more money than rank-and-file members of Congress.

Timmons and Kilmer both said they could explain how increasing staff pay was a bonus to voters back home. Keeping seasoned aides working in the Capitol means more expertise for lawmakers and less influence for lobbyists.

“We don’t want them running the place,” Timmons said.

All of this should help with not only recruiting smart, young aides to take entry-level jobs on Capitol Hill but also keeping the most senior staff around a few extra years before leaving for the private sector.

But it still doesn’t resolve the problem of lawmakers’ own finances, with no political will to increase their pay.

The 1989 law created the COLA system, making the pay increases automatic for both lawmakers and judges. But by 2009, Congress had become so unpopular — the Great Recession sending unemployment north of 10 percent — that lawmakers nixed getting the raise automatically.

A few years later, federal judges sued successfully to have their cost-of-living increases reinstated and to be broken off the congressional pay scale. The result is that district judges, who as recently as 2013 made the same $174,000 as members of Congress, now make almost $70,000 more than members. Justices of the Supreme Court make almost $300,000.

Almost all members realize they should get paid more, and that this would be better for democracy. But they cannot find the courage to let it happen. Some have suggested ideas that would tie raises to job performance, such as passing the federal agency budgets on time.

Others think Congress should set up an independent commission to set their salaries and those of other federal officials, as some states do.

Hoyer, 85, has tried preaching self-confidence to more junior lawmakers, promising them they can get reelected if they can also demonstrate real results for their constituents.

“Members are afraid, in my view, to stand up and say I am worth it,” he said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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