Following a gripe about members of Congress being "underpaid" that put Rep. James P. Moran at the center of an ongoing debate about congressional pay, the Virginia Democrat proposed adding about $2,800 to the average member's $174,000 annual salary, arguing it would help diversify the ranks of Congress.
Moran pitched his amendment as a "very modest" housing stipend to help cover the high cost of living in the District — $25 for each day the House is in session. He said during a Wednesday markup of the legislative branch spending bill that the per diem pay would be voluntary and available to members who maintain a primary residence more than 50 miles outside the Capitol. Moran, a northern Virginia resident who lives 10 miles away and is one of Congress' poorest members , would not be eligible.
Though appropriators rejected his amendment on a voice vote, the retiring lawmaker plans to raise the issue again on the House floor to highlight the high cost of maintaining a second residence in the District. "D.C. has one of the highest rental costs in the world," Moran said, citing Congressional Research Service statistics from a recent CQ Roll Call article that show pay has declined by 20 percent in actual dollars over the course of his 12 terms in the House.
Moran fears Congress will increasingly be populated by only two types of members: those who come only for the short term and use the job as a stepping stone to a lucrative private sector gig, and people so rich that "our salary is a rounding error" in their net worth.
“Don’t we want the 30-something in the position of a district attorney or city council member or small business owner — somebody who may have a new home mortgage or young children, or unpaid student loan debt — to realistically be able to consider a congressional office?" he asked.
House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., and ranking member Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., acknowledged he was making an important point with his unpopular measure. Cole said he would have to oppose it. Wasserman Schultz indicated she could not take a position on the bill, but understood the irony of Moran's argument that Congress would be "more democratic" by increasing member pay.
In 2014, the House is scheduled to be in session 112 days, equating to a $2,800 housing stipend under Moran's proposal. That would be the projected amount of salary adjustment that would have occurred in fiscal 2015, Moran pointed out, but for the fact that the bill freezes member pay.
Moran worries lawmakers have set a poor precedent in the fiscal 2015 legislative spending branch bill by including a congressional pay freeze, first implemented in 2009, in the text of the bill.
"The current system for determining member pay was established by the Ethics Reform Act of 1989," Moran said. In return for limiting outside pay, the law established cost of living adjustments for members, similar to federal employees. "The idea was to limit the corrupting influence of outside sources of income, while removing politics from the process of adjusting member pay — yet, Congress has routinely denied pay adjustments that were authorized by law."
"I'd be surprised if this doesn't become an obligatory provision," he said, predicting pay could stay the same 5, 10 or even 15 years from now, while inflation and market prices keeps rising.
Moran expects most members to oppose his plan — "Some of you I want to do so in a very vociferous way because I want you to be able to return," he said — but he will keep fighting. He acknowledged that his office received thousands of phone calls after his April 3 statements to CQ Roll Call , many of them full of expletives, and all in opposition to the proposal.
"We need diversity of perspective in the House," he said. "Over half the Congress is millionaires."
The House Appropriations Committee cleared the $3.3-billion legislative branch spending proposal on a voice vote.