Meager Pay Hikes for House Offices

Posted January 15, 2008 at 6:33pm

Members’ Representational Allowances are expected to stay relatively on par this year with last year, potentially limiting Members’ ability to give their staffs raises, make office improvements and send out mailings.

Any increase in the MRAs are expected to be small — perhaps only about 1 percent — and that has led to frustration and anger among many Member offices, with House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) even refusing to sign a letter informing Members of their MRA amounts.

“He doesn’t feel as though the majority has appropriately prioritized a Member’s ability to adequately pay his or her already overworked and underpaid staff,” Ehlers spokeswoman Salley Collins said Tuesday.

A spokesman for House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) declined to comment Tuesday, since Members had not yet been notified of the specific MRA totals that they will receive. Members are expected to be given their individualized letters perhaps as early as today. The letters should further detail why MRAs are so low this year.

MRAs provide funding for Members to support their official and representational duties. The amount each office receives depends on a formula that takes into account three main expenses: personnel compensation, franked mail and official expenses such as travel and district office rent.

Not all Members receive the same amount. Members whose districts are located farther from Washington, D.C., for example, typically receive more money because travel costs are higher. Members who live in districts with higher rental prices also can expect more of an allowance.

In 2005, for example, each House Member’s office received an average MRA of $1.2 million, according to a study by the National Taxpayers Union.

The funds for MRAs are allocated from the overall legislative branch appropriations package, and it is up to the House Administration Committee to adjust the MRA formula if needed. The panel sometimes does so to reflect wage adjustments for federal workers and to make other necessary inflationary adjustments.

In the omnibus measure that passed last month, which included the legislative branch, appropriators allocated about $580 million for MRAs in fiscal 2008, which is technically about a 4.5 percent increase compared with the $555 million allocated in fiscal 2007, according to John Bowman, chief of staff for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

In an interview Tuesday, Wasserman Schultz said appropriators believe the money was allocated to provide a 4.5 percent increase for MRAs, and that the expected figures from House Administration could be inaccurate.

“Obviously, there’s some discrepancy here,” Wasserman Schultz said, adding that her staff plans to meet with House Administration officials. “We are going to sit down and sort through with them to figure out how they reached this conclusion,” she said.

According to a draft of the letter expected to be sent to Members, officials originally requested more than $610 million for MRAs. That total was designed not only to provide appropriate adjustments, but also to make up for last year’s continuing resolution, which had already hindered MRA totals.

“Due to the limited funding available for [fiscal] 2008, the committee is constrained from authorizing the usual and customary adjustments to the MRA,” according to the draft letter, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.

For example, the House finance office advised that there is only enough funding to authorize an increase of no more than $4,500 for each Member’s official expenses component, according to the letter.

“Please be advised that it is the Committee’s intention to request funding for the 2009 MRA at a level that will restore full and balanced funding to this account,” the letter reads.

One Republican House aide said the money that was given to fund the Green the Capitol Initiative, for example, should be reallocated to increase MRAs. The aide also cited other expenses incurred in 2007, including new vending machines in the cafeteria.

“The Speaker’s Office has blown $16,000 for flowers, yet the majority can’t find the money within the existing budget to adequately pay staff,” the aide said, noting that Members are receiving a $4,000 salary increase this year. “With the cost of living on the rise, we don’t need a hot dog machine. We need more money.”

But Wasserman Schultz defended her committee’s work, noting that in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, leadership abolished the Appropriations subcommittee.

“We had a backlog of neglect that existed as a result of their lack of leadership,” she said. “For them to say that is totally disingenuous and absolutely out of line from people who hadn’t taken care of this institution to begin with.”