OPINION — If there’s one thing less popular than Congress right now, it’s giving Congress a pay raise. Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy found that out the hard way last week when, despite a bipartisan agreement to quietly give a 2.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment to House members, the entire agreement blew up when House freshmen from both parties balked at voting to raise their own salaries.
Complaining about Congress and the money they make is a tradition as old as the country itself, especially in times of recession or government debts. A 1955 political cartoon in the Richmond Times Leader once showed a bag of money labeled “Pay Raise for Congress” running like a thief down a dark alley, and the sentiment in America hasn’t changed much since then.
But a closer look at what it takes to work in Congress today, along with who can afford to do it and the results those people have produced, would convince almost anyone that paying your congressman more than your plumber might make more than a little sense in the future.
More than your plumber? Yes. According to Homeadvisor.com, plumbers typically charge between $45 to $200 per hour. A car mechanic makes $80 to $100 per hour. In terms of a job that the lawyers in Congress might do, a partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm may bill out for $600 to $1,000-plus per hour.
Compare all of those salaries to a rough estimate of what a House member makes. If you assume a 12-hour day (on the short end of a day in session), along with time for travel and events in the district, working five days a week, the job pays about $55 per hour. If you assume a six-day work week, which most staff can tell you is more realistic, it pays $46 per hour.
Congress’ $174,000 paycheck is still nearly triple the median income in the United States, but as any member will tell you, the residency requirement at home, along with official business happening in Washington, means splitting time between two cities, when one of them is D.C., which has a cost of living 45 percent above the national average. That means paying for two homes, two sets of utilities, possibly two cars, and two of everything else you can think of needing in your waking hours.
That extra expense is a heavy burden for many in Congress to cover year after year. But for others, namely the independently wealthy who came to Congress after making or inheriting millions, the cost of maintaining two households is no object. The result is now a House and Senate populated by the uber-rich and the mostly broke, with white men dominating the first group and women and people of color mostly making up the second, when they choose to run for Congress at all.
According to Roll Call’s latest “Wealth of Congress” report, which ranked the 115th Congress, 203 members had a net worth of $1 million or more, while almost a quarter of members had a negative net worth altogether. Of the 50 richest members in Congress, all were white men, except for seven women and one person of color. Of the women, most were on the list thanks to their husbands’ earnings. Likewise, Rep. Ro Khanna’s $27 million goes back to his wife’s family.
For everyone in the 200-plus group of millionaires, the cost of running for, and now serving in Congress, hardly matters. But for everyone else, pay increases like the one proposed last week can mean the difference between making ends meet in two cities and going into debt to cover the cost of serving.
The same is doubly true for congressional staffers and security officers, whose pay is tied to the pay of members. A chief of staff on the House side cannot make more than the member, nor can any staff of the House and Senate infrastructure. The 10-year pay freeze aimed at Congress swept the entire Capitol complex up with it. For an institution already populated by wealthy white men, few can afford to stay.
Is this of any real concern to voters in South Carolina or California or any of the states whose members balked at the idea of voting to allow the COLA last week? Not really. But the makeup of Congress and congressional staff should be of concern to all Americans. The 116th Congress is the most diverse in history, at roughly 24 percent female members and 116 minority members. But the numbers still trail far behind the makeup of the country itself, which is 51 percent female and 40 percent minority.
Keeping Congress at least somewhat representative of the country as a whole was a goal of both McCarthy and Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond last week, when they defended the need for the COLA. “I do not want Congress, at the end of the day, to only be a place that millionaires serve. This should be a body of the people. And I think it’s something that should be looked at,” McCarthy said at his weekly press conference.
And Richmond told Roll Call, “You want this to be an elite institution, you don’t want this to be an institution of the elite.”
I joked with a friend recently that I was thinking of calling my Roll Call column “Unpopular Opinions,” because I often side with the unpopular side of an argument if the facts make the easy, popular opinion impossible to embrace. So here’s my latest, least popular opinion: Serving in Congress costs members more out of pocket than the salary they’re getting. Pay them more, or get used to the super-rich running Congress.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.