Spending panel releases trial balloon on raising member pay

Bill would also provide for COVID-19 prevention, tampons, professional development

Rep. Tim Ryan chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tim Ryan chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 28, 2021 at 6:33pm

House appropriators are testing the waters on raising member pay — requesting a report on comparison of member salaries to those in the private sector. It is the latest iteration of a hot-button issue that has tripped up spending bills in recent years.

The salary for rank-and-file House and Senate lawmakers is $174,000, but those with official leadership titles and responsibilities make more. That level has been frozen since 2009, and each year appropriators have written into law that no pay raises would be given to members.

Report language accompanying the fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, released Monday ahead of Tuesday’s House Appropriations Committee markup of the measure, would direct the office of the chief administrative officer to coordinate with the Congressional Research Service or other entities to compile a report comparing member pay with “executives and managers in the private sector with similar levels of experience and responsibility.”

When adjusted for inflation, member salaries decreased approximately 17 percent from 2009 until 2020.

Pay raises for lawmakers is a politically tenuous issue that boiled over in 2019, when the fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch spending bill was pulled from floor consideration over the absence of language implementing a pay freeze for lawmakers.

The fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch spending bill would continue the pay freeze, but it requests a report on its inquiry into how member pay compares to that of other jobs within 120 days.

Some members who are opposed to any kind of action on the matter warned their appropriator colleagues last week about the chance they might sign off on language allowing a pay raise.

“Thank you for your continued leadership as we navigate the challenges and opportunities that have arisen so far in the 117th Congress. As you consider spending proposals in the 2022 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, we urge you to prevent a pay raise for Members of Congress from appearing in any final bill language,” Reps. Angie Craig, D-Minn., and Chris Pappas, D-N.H., wrote to House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and ranking member Jamie Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.

“For the last year and a half, hardworking Americans in our districts and across the country have been fighting to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn. Many of them have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Countless more have been forced to make difficult decisions about childcare, education, workforce participation, and healthcare because of forces out of their control,” Craig and Pappas wrote. “To be clear: these hardworking Americans have not been able to give themselves raises. Members of Congress should not do so either.”

Appropriators on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee write in the report that they are taking “extraordinary action” to address low staff pay, which they attribute in part to prior pay freezes and inflation.

The House spending proposal would provide a $134 million boost for the Members’ Representational Allowance, bringing funding for basic office budgets for lawmakers to $774.4 million. Committee funding would see a $34 million increase to $197 million.

“The committee is taking this action simply to bring House salaries closer to the ten-year inflation-adjusted baseline,” says the report.

Health and safety

The COVID-19 pandemic is still reverberating, and with variants causing concern even for vaccinated individuals, continued caution is evident in the committee’s report.

The Legislative Branch spending bill would include more than $4 million for the Office of the Attending Physician, and report language acknowledges that additional COVID-19 vaccination efforts may be needed, directing the OAP to establish a plan for booster shot distribution and to communicate this plan with top leaders on Capitol Hill “as soon as practicable.”

The report also instructs the Architect of the Capitol to conduct a feasibility study for implementing upgrades to Capitol facilities “to reduce the number of surfaces that are touched by staff and visitors with the goal of reducing the spread of infectious diseases,” including doors and elevators.

Just a few months into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made clear that surface spread was limited and that extreme measures to clean surfaces were not priority investments in COVID-19 mitigation.

Overall, the spending bill includes $1 million for the feasibility study on combating communicable diseases within the Capitol.

There is also instruction for the OAP to expand optional life-saving training to include that for carrying and administering the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

“The committee further notes that overdose deaths from opioids continue to rise and the Capitol community is not immune to the epidemic,” says the report.

Many states and jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., have initiated standing orders that allow the general public to carry the medication, which can be administered as a nasal spray.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., has taken the lead on calling for the implementation of naloxone training on Capitol Hill and in district offices in recent years.

Staffers and others can already get optional CPR and defibrillator training.

After a years-long struggle about menstrual hygiene products in Congress, the appropriators are directing the Architect of the Capitol to request resources for fiscal 2023 to ensure that tampons, pads and other products are available at no cost in House office buildings.

“The committee hopes that [the Committee on House Administration] will consider making this policy change,” says the report.

For years, Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney, Grace Meng and Debbie Wasserman Schultz have advocated for wider access to the essential personal care items, with a victory in 2019 when the House Administration Committee instructed that menstrual products be stocked in the House office supply store for purchase with Members’ Representational Allowance funds.

Professional development

The House Modernization of Congress Committee has been exploring how to enhance continuing education and staff development and recommended for fiscal 2021 that CRS design a congressional law program for senior staff without law degrees. The fiscal 2022 report “expects” CRS to present a plan on implementation and execution of the program within 90 days of enactment of the Legislative Branch spending bill.

Appropriators are also pushing the chief administrative officer to prioritize developing certifications and training programs for staff at different levels to incentivize and standardize professional development training.

“Staff certifications strengthen and expand educational and professional development opportunities and assist in retaining staff,” according to the report.

Lawmakers are also requesting a feasibility and cost study on integrating parts of onboarding new staff into the existing Congressional Staff Academy.