Hoyer and Jeffries to pitch 20 percent boost for office funds to retain staff

After years of cuts and freezes, staff find it easy to leave

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer is proposing more funding for staff salaries. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer is proposing more funding for staff salaries. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 28, 2021 at 5:00am

Leaders in the House are raising the alarm that the sluggish growth of staffer pay makes recruiting and retaining talented staff difficult and are urging appropriators to include a 20 percent increase for office budgets for fiscal 2022.

In a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries wrote to Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro and Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan advocating for the boost to the Members’ Representational Allowance in the upcoming Legislative Branch spending bill.

“We urge you to include a 20% increase in funding for MRAs, for committees, and for leadership offices so we can increase staff pay,” Hoyer and Jeffries wrote.

Advocates and lawmakers have voiced concerns in recent years about overworked and underpaid staff leading to high turnover rates and forcing lawmakers to lean on lobbyists and outside groups for deep expertise on policy issues.

“Many have been serving as Congressional staff for years out of a deep sense of duty, choosing not to pursue or accept competitive offers from the private sector in order to remain in public service,” wrote Hoyer and Jeffries. “Their commendable sacrifices and contributions ought to be met with the raises and benefit increases they have surely earned through their hard work and dedication.”

[‘Where am I?’: Black staffers describe hurdles of working on Capitol Hill]

They also say recruits eager to commit their careers to public service are deterred by less competitive salaries and benefits even when compared with executive branch jobs.

Hoyer and Jeffries both testified this month to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress about how to make pay and benefits for staffers more competitive with the private sector and other federal employers.

The panel put forth a number of recommendations related to staffing in the previous Congress, including a centralized human resources hub and raising the cap on the number of staffers per office.

Hoyer proposed abolishing the cap on staff pay being more than members’. Most members make $174,000 — with the exception of certain leadership positions — and haven’t seen an increase in a decade. For many staffers, maximum salaries have been unchanged since 2009.

“We need to guarantee House staff cost-of-living adjustments similar to those received by executive branch employees. Not more, not less. But when the executive gets COLAs, our staff ought to get COLAs as well,” Hoyer told the committee.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the median salary for a House legislative assistant was $55,306 in 2019 — 20 percent below 2010 levels when accounting for inflation. Median salaries for chiefs of staff and legislative directors were similarly lower when inflation was factored in at 10 percent and 14 percent, respectively, according to CRS.

This dynamic also affects district offices, where staff ties to their communities are hard to replicate.

“When district-based staff leave, Members lose institutional expertise and valuable local insights that benefit the people we represent,” Jeffries told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “To serve our districts to the best of our abilities, we must be able to recruit and retain staff at the highest levels, and that means increasing Member MRAs to offer salaries that make a career in public service sustainable.”

Audrey Henson, CEO and founder of College to Congress, encouraged lawmakers at a recent modernization panel hearing not only to focus on paying experienced long-term staffers more but also to support increased pay for early-career staff.

“When I first went from intern to staffer, I made $25,000 a year. And I was working for a boss that was anti-subsidies, and I was having to live off food stamps and free health care because I could not afford anything else,” said Henson.

Dao Nguyen is a former House staffer who spent nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, from unpaid internships to senior staff roles with several Democrats and the executive director position for the Future Forum Caucus.

Nguyen left public service at the end of 2020 for a job at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a move she called “bittersweet” but inevitable.

“I have family that I have to care for. I want to save for a house. And I’d also like to have a family of my own. And so planning for my future became increasingly difficult the longer that I was on the Hill,” Nguyen said in a phone interview.

“If compensation were commensurate with the amount of work that people put into that place, you would see the Hill have lower turnover of staff,” said Nguyen. “And you’d see Capitol Hill become a place where offices can hang on to experienced staff with institutional knowledge, and that would demonstrably make a positive impact in the way that people are able to serve their constituents and their districts.”

She said the last year has been “brutal” for staffers. Nguyen also wondered how junior staff, who often hop between receptions or lunch events to scrape together a free meal, cope while working from home because of COVID-19.

The Democratic leaders pointed to efforts to make staff more representative of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, which they say requires more funds.

“Those coming from economically underprivileged backgrounds find it hard to afford internships and entry-level positions on Capitol Hill without family support,” wrote Jeffries and Hoyer. “Pre-existing wealth should not be a barrier to entry for a career as a Congressional staffer.”

[Intern pay was supposed to boost diversity in Congress. Most of the money went to white students]

Jeffries and Hoyer acknowledge other priorities will compete for dollars in the Legislative Branch bill, like security overhauls in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. They connected safety in the workplace and compensation as issues that motivate staffers to leave or to stay.

“We believe that we must accompany our efforts to make the Capitol complex safer with a parallel effort to make staff pay more competitive with the private sector,” wrote Hoyer and Jeffries.

If their request is honored, the office boost, with a supplemental for Capitol security, could result in a potentially unprecedented increase for Legislative Branch funding.