Hawkings

Congressional Pay and Benefits at a Standstill, With a Cost

Self-denial makes political sense, but doesn’t aide Capitol culture or productivity

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz has become the latest lawmaker to be candid about the high cost of being a member of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Call it quitters’ candor.

Members of Congress sometimes say the darnedest things on their way out the door, especially when taking their leave on their own terms and not because voters insisted on it. Jason Chaffetz recently became the latest such lawmaker.

Having served just a quarter of his current House term, and at the finale of an unusually balky resignation process, he offered this as his final legislative proposal:

The pay and benefits package for every senator and House member should be increased by $30,000, a whopping 17 percent, with all the extra $16 million in taxpayer money dedicated to subsidizing lawmaker housing expenses in Washington.

The proposition is not at all difficult to defend on both economic and institutional grounds; in fact, embracing Chaffetz’s idea could do a decent amount to improve the atmosphere of Congress and its productivity, too — by spurring members to be less publicly spiteful toward the place where they work and more genuinely collegial toward the people they work with. And many in the congressional rank and file are open to embracing those arguments, so long as none of their constituents are listening.

David Hawkings' Whiteboard: How Much Do Lawmakers Get Paid?

The idea nonetheless stands no chance of being granted a formal hearing, let alone a vote — and will instead be consigned to oblivion under a torrent of political hair-shirt posturing, social media derision and late-night comedian ridicule.

The same goes for the annual cost-of-living increase that’s supposed to bring an automatic yearly uptick to every lawmaker’s salary, but which they are going to deny themselves for a ninth consecutive year.

The housing subsidy idea will get even less consideration than a much more modest proposal, shouted down in the House Appropriations Committee three years ago.

It would have given members a $25 per diem every day Congress is in session — which is never more than 200 nights a year, so the stipends to help defray lodging costs would not have topped $5,000 per lawmaker, or $2.7 million overall.

That trial balloon was floated by Democrat James P. Moran of suburban northern Virginia — who, like Chaffetz, could not be punished politically for advocating even the mildest profligacy because he was already headed for the House’s exits.

But Moran, who’s now on K Street, never sold himself as anti-establishment or a fiscal conservative, while the palpably ambitious, 50-year-old Chaffetz took the opposite route in becoming one of the most high-wattage Republicans in the House.

Mr. Chaffetz Goes to Washington

While rising rapidly to a term as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and during a few weeks running for speaker in 2015, he became a prominent champion of his party’s messages about shrinking the size of government and challenging Washington’s business-as-usual assumptions.

One way he did so was boasting how — during his eight-and-a-half years as the congressman for southeastern Utah — he churned through a blow-up bed, then a folding cot, and finally a framed mattress while spending every night in Washington in his congressional office.

So his bold idea for boosting congressional compensation is an important moment in a Nixon-goes-to-China sort of way.

It’s always worth noting when a carefully calibrated politician tries to leverage his reputation for one sort of behavior into support for doing something totally counterindicated.

This is especially true for someone who still plans to remain close to the electoral arena. Even as he takes up his duties this month as one of the newest Fox News political commentators, Chaffetz has not ruled out running for governor or senator as soon as three years from now.

So his decision to give voice to what most other members will discuss only privately must mean one of two things: He believes he can survive in the public arena despite committing such an apostasy. Or he has concluded he can sell the idea that the hardships of congressional life are keeping too many away from public service.

The congressional salary of $174,000 is more than triple what the average American made last year, but almost identical to the earnings of the average dentist. Since lawmakers are limited to only $28,000 in other earned income — and its sources are highly restricted so as to avoid any potential conflicts of interest — the federal paycheck has to pay for their lives back home and expenses while in Washington.

This is the longest period without a congressional raise since the decade ending in 1965, and there’s little likelihood the salary will change until both private sector wages and the public’s view of Congress have increased substantially and stayed that way for a while. Adjusting for inflation, the buying power of a member’s salary is less than at any time since the late 1980s. 

But even if the annual cost-of-living adjustment had happened each year since 2009, member pay would be cresting $200,000 only this year. And that’s not a generous amount for servicing the mortgage on the family home while paying for a place to live while in Washington, one of the nation’s most expensive cities thanks to an economic resurgence in the past decade.

Paying the rent

Last week, Zillow showed only 16 one-bedroom or studio apartments for rent on Capitol Hill for less than $1,700 a month. Of the six-dozen houses and condos for sale in the neighborhood, just 21 were listed below $750,000, and most of them were a mile or so from the congressional office buildings.

Those are steep prices for people who haven’t entered federal office with a serious financial head start. And while a third of all House members and half the senators are millionaires on paper, more than 200 have a minimum net worth below $200,000.

If Congress is to live up to the ideal that its membership somewhat reflects the demographics of the country, then the number of lawmakers from the 1 percent should be more than offset by those living from paycheck to paycheck.

And the potential financial hit from winning a seat in the House or Senate is one of the things that dissuade hotly recruited candidates from running — many of them the sorts of small-business owner Republicans or unionized laborer Democrats who could give voice to concerns from a broad swath of the American workforce.

Those voters consistently lament that the Capitol is rife with the sort of big-money backscratching that inevitably devolves into corrupt behavior. But “draining the swamp,” as President Donald Trump famously put it, might be easier if members made enough so that they were not as jealous of the lobbyists and corporate executives surrounding them.

Finally, subsidizing lawmakers’ D.C. housing would persuade more of them to spend a bit more time in the capital — and to give up the practice, still furtively practiced by dozens, of freeloading off the government by using their Hill offices as a bed-and-breakfast. The practice reinforces the notion that lawmakers share their constituents’ disrespect for Congress as an institution. 

It also assures that members from opposing parties spend minimal time mingling, even at a time when aspirations of bipartisan cooperation are on many voters’ minds. That’s because sharing a hairdryer in the member’s gym before parting ways for separate partisan fundraisers is no substitute for an evening in an apartment watching a ballgame or jawboning about politics.

None of these arguments have been politically persuasive — even back in the days when the congressional approval rating was solidly in positive territory. They certainly won’t get a serious hearing this summer, or in the midterm election campaign. But by the time Chaffetz considers running for office again, the taxpayers may start noticing that they’re getting the lesser Congress they have been paying for.