Salaries on Hill Still Low

Posted December 10, 2004 at 6:22pm

Despite modest growth in the average paycheck of House staffers over the past two years, their salaries continue to lag nearly 50 percent behind those of their D.C.-based counterparts in the federal government, a new study shows.

According to the latest House Staff Employment Study, produced by the Congressional Management Foundation under the direction of the House Administration Committee, the average salary for both Capitol Hill- and district-based staffers in 2004 was $49,912, a 6.4-percent increase over 2002.

Salaries for federal employees in the District of Columbia, however, continued to outpace those of Capitol Hill-based staff in similar positions by 47 percent, or $79,577 to $54,212, respectively.

That disparity marks the continuation of a long-term trend in which other federal employees have continually earned more than House employees. The gap has widened 13 percent since 1994, when federal workers earned 28 percent more on average than House staff. (A CMF study of Senate salaries in 2001, the most recent survey of that chamber, found Capitol Hill staff lagging 32 percent behind their D.C. counterparts, earning $49,326 to $64,969, respectively.)

Although the differences in pay is still significant when examined on a national level — with all House employees earning 20 percent less than their federal counterparts nationwide — the study shows those figures remain roughly the same as 2002 levels, and down from the one-time high disparity of 22 percent in 2000.

While House Members, including the House Appropriations ranking member, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), have often decried the loss of experienced staff to better paying positions, at least one House lawmaker said the latest survey results are not alarming.

“I don’t think that it’s cause for real concern. I think it’s something we should be mindful of,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ranking member on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. “There are reasons that explain it. One of the reasons is that the tenure of staff is relatively low. The federal employees in the federal government have much longer tenure.”

According to the CMF study — which contributes the pay disparity to factors including age, experience and education — Washington-based staff record an average tenure of 5 years in the House. It noted, however, that: “The average tenure data for House staff masks the fact that a large number of staff have little experience in Congress while a small number of staff have substantial experience.”

For example, of those House staffers serving as general legislative assistants, the most common position in Capitol Hill offices, only 25 percent have served in their position for more than two years and average only 3.3 years in Congress, the study shows.

In comparison, chiefs of staff recorded an average tenure of 11 years in 2004, the longest-serving position for Capitol Hill staff.

“The reality is that we don’t have a problem in recruiting people, we have a problem in retaining them,” Moran said.

Still, the CMF study does suggest that wages are an obstacle for some House offices seeking to acquire new staff.

When asked in an open-ended question to described the biggest obstacles in recruiting new staff, nearly a third cited low wages relative to the required skills.

“The single greatest problem Member offices have in recruiting new staff is the low salary levels on the Hill relative to the skills required for positions, compared to the private sector and other federal government jobs, making it problematic for offices to attract qualified applicants for open positions,” the study states.

In its examination of House staffers’ education background, for example, the study found Congressional staffers earn significantly less than workers with similar degrees in the national work force.

“While staff in Member offices have, on average, more years of education than the average employee in the national work force, they are not as well compensated for their formal training,” the report states. “This may be explained, at least in part, by the relative youth of House staff.”

The report continues: “Those in the national work force with master’s and doctorate degrees earn 26% and 65% more, respectively.” While the average salary for workers with law or other professional degrees was $134,106 in 2004, House staffers with the same education level earned $70,858 during that period.

But the disparity in pay between House staff holding bachelor’s degrees and their counterparts in the national work force did shrink to 38 percent in 2004, down from 45 percent in 2002. The study notes, however, that the uptick is not necessarily the result of salary increases on Capitol Hill: “This drop is likely due to the slowing of the economy and less rapid growth of private sector salaries,” the study states.

According to the study, House offices are using other benefits, including the student loan repayment program, to recruit and retain staffers.

The study found more than 90 percent of offices participating in the loan repayment program, which allows House offices to issues payments of up to $500 per month for student loans. Staffers must agree to serve a one-year period to qualify for the program.

“Nearly two-thirds of respondents from all offices report that the Student Loan Repayment Program helps them with recruiting and retaining employees,” the study states.