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Politics of a Pay Raise for Congress: Still Toxic (Video)

Hastings says Congress needs a raise. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When the doors slid shut on Capitol Hill’s private, members-only elevators last spring, colleagues started to tell then-Rep. James P. Moran their honest opinion of his proposed housing stipend: Congress desperately needs a raise.  

“You’re a real sport for taking it on, Jim,” the retired Virginia Democrat said he heard from members, once they were out of the earshot of reporters. Speaking from his desk at McDermott Will & Emery’s Government Strategies Practice Group Tuesday, the congressman-turned-lobbyist lamented the lack of political courage on the Hill from lawmakers who “learned how to tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to know.”  

Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings' argument that members of Congress need a pay raise may have garnered support from a top House Democrat , but other members who would likely benefit from a salary increase are not falling in line on the politically toxic issue.

During a Rules Committee meeting on the bill to fund the legislative branch, Hastings said lawmakers deserve a pay raise , arguing a pay freeze and the high cost of living in the District of Columbia will render Congress an institution for the wealthy. Members of Congress currently make an average annual salary of $174,000 and a freeze has been in place since 2010.  

“We have more than 50 members, probably as many as 75 or more, living in their offices,” Hastings told CQ Roll Call Monday night. “They’re not there because of any other reason than they can’t afford it. Now if people want us in sackcloths and ashes, then they’re going to get what they rightly deserve as representation.”  

To be precise, “sackcloths and ashes” are not signs of poverty, but are actually worn to indicate mourning after a personal or national disaster. Biblical references aside, some members of Congress said Tuesday they don’t deserve a pay raise as Americans are struggling to make ends meet.  

“With all the people out there that are hurting that, haven’t seen their income go up in a decade, it’s a pretty darn hard argument. I certainly wouldn’t expect anybody to be sympathetic. I’m not sympathetic to it myself," said Rep. Matt Salmon. The Arizona Republican, who ranked 517th on Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress list , said he took a “tremendous pay cut” to come back to D.C. after working in the private sector for 12 years, between stints in Congress. “If this is about money, then you’re in the wrong place.”  

Salmon commuted from Virginia’s Fairfax County while doing a job that required him to lobby Washington. “I was the president of a trade association and I lived out in Centreville, and I just got really sick of the commute, to be honest with you,” said Salmon, who started sleeping in his House office when he came back to Congress in 2013. The congressman claims sleeping on his couch is not about saving money.  

“I find that by staying in my office, I’m able to be a lot more productive. It means I don’t have to be on the road for an extra hour-and-a-half-a-day. There’s, I think, a lot of benefits,” Salmon said.  

Other members of Congress’ unofficial ‘couch caucus’ acknowledged that cost was a factor in their decisions to sleep in their offices. But none of the five members interviewed Tuesday support Hastings' argument that lawmakers need a pay raise.  

“Within any reasonable distance of Capitol Hill, the monthly rental rates are in the $2,000 per month,” said Rep. Evan H. Jenkins, R-W.Va., who opposes a pay raise for lawmakers. “I have a son that just graduated from college. I’ve got one that starts this fall, and another one that will be in four years. So do you think about paying for your college kids? Sure. And so by staying in my office [I’m] saving effectively $24,000 a year.”  

Hastings also pointed to affording a college education as a reason for the pay hike.  

“My children are grown, I’m in good shape,” Hastings said. “But when you take into consideration people with 14- [or] 15-year-old children getting ready to go to college, they can’t do it here.”  

Though affording his children’s education is one of the reasons Jenkins sleeps in his 5th floor Cannon office  while construction in the oldest House office building goes on during the night  he said he did not factor financial considerations into his decision to run for Congress.  

"As a parent you’re always focused on your family budget, your family financial needs, supporting your children,” Jenkins said. “But did I approach the decision to run for Congress from a financial decision? No.”  

But Hastings is concerned the freeze on congressional salaries will prevent people who are not affluent from running for Congress, which, in his view, would be detrimental to the institution. And the No. 2 Democrat agreed .  

“To continue [the pay freeze] simply will dictate the only people who can serve are the rich,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday. “I don't think that's what the founding fathers had in mind and frankly I don't see a cost of living adjustment as a raise, but staying even."  

Hoyer was making the careful distinction between allowing for a “cost-of-living adjustment” and pay raise. Members of Congress used to receive automatic cost-of-living adjustments to their salaries, amounting in a salary increase, but that stopped in 2010.  

Hoyer argued the freeze was appropriate during the economic recession, but it was now time for the freeze to thaw.  

“Steny can relate to people who are just getting by,” Moran said, praising the leadership of the Maryland Democrat, who ranked 394th on Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress report. As to whether or not Congress will actually reverse the pay freeze, Moran said, “I’d be shocked. … One of the reasons I left is not because of the pay, but because of the fact that there is so little leadership willing to stand up.”  

According to Hastings, he and Hoyer spoke on the House floor after the Rules Committee meeting Monday night.  

“I will follow [Hoyer’s] lead in that regard,” Hastings said. “He, too, is concerned, as are many members who are afraid to express themselves for fear of some backlash in their communities.”  

“Congress is left afraid to speak up for itself,” Hastings later added. “Well, I’m not.”  

Related: Hoyer Supports Pay Raise for Lawmakers Hastings: Members of Congress Need a Pay Raise (Video) Moran: Members Can’t Afford to Live Decently in D.C. (Audio) Moran Predicts Two-Class System Arising in Congress Moran’s Housing Stipend Gets Some Sympathy on House Floor A Case for Moran: ‘Underpaid’ Is Accurate The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.