This was supposed to be a big year for Hill pay. Staffers aren’t holding their breath

‘It is pretty hard to be optimistic,’ according to one Senate aide. Part of the problem: Not everyone agrees underlings should earn more

Staffers walk through the Capitol rotunda in September. The median salary for all House staffers is $59,000, an increase of $4,000 from two years ago, according to a new report from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Staffers walk through the Capitol rotunda in September. The median salary for all House staffers is $59,000, an increase of $4,000 from two years ago, according to a new report from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 18, 2021 at 6:00am

For a while it seemed as if this would be the year that Congress tackled its long-standing staffer retention issues, but aides say that hope is fizzling, replaced by the usual holiday slog.

The prospect of higher pay soared this summer after House leadership decoupled member and staffer salary caps, and as appropriators proposed a 20 percent increase in the money members can spend on their offices and payroll. But as fall turns to winter, the two parties remain far apart on how to fund the government for fiscal 2022 beyond a series of stopgaps. 

“It’s probably not going to happen,” said one House Democratic staffer, who asked for anonymity to talk frankly about an office funding boost anytime soon. “But if it did happen, I truly don’t think that lower-level staffers would be getting any sort of monetary benefit from it.” 

Her first job as a district staffer paid so low she lived with her parents, she said. While retention discussions often focus on the highest earners who leave the Hill for swanky lobbying jobs, workers near the bottom and middle are reaching a breaking point.

“What always worries me is the midlevel staffers, like legislative assistants and sometimes legislative directors and comms directors,” said the staffer. “They’re the ones that are doing a lot of the grueling hours of work.”

Ideas about pay are deeply entrenched in Hill culture, which complicates things even further, said a GOP Senate aide who started out on the House side. Almost everyone at the Capitol has an opinion about how to fix what’s broken there, but not everyone agrees that underlings should earn more.

“Senior staffers with experience in those lower staff roles look at it as ‘paying your dues’ or ‘earning your keep,’” said the aide, who asked to not be identified for fear of retribution. “It is pretty hard to be optimistic that change will come.”

Gains at the top

The decoupling news in August felt significant to many staffers, at least in a symbolic sense. Top House aides can now make more than their bosses, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced, raising the annual cap to $199,300, from just under $174,000.   

Before those fatter paychecks can play out in the real world, lawmakers will need to find more room in their Members Representational Allowances, or MRAs, which is exactly what House appropriators are proposing with the office funding hike. For now, staffers can only watch and wait. The big question for junior aides is whether any gains would trickle down.

It won’t happen without a pressure campaign, some said. Groups like the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association see a chance for better pay for junior staff and staffers of color and plan to push for that. They also plan to “educate our members about how to empower themselves to ask for raises,” said CHSA advisory committee member Christine Godinez in a statement. 

The average gap between male and female congressional staffers is more than $5,500 in the House and more than $7,500 in the Senate, said Samantha Carter, spokeswoman for the Women’s Congressional Staff Association, citing an academic analysis of Legistorm data from 2000-14.

“As part of our core mission, our Association empowers our members with the skills they need to advocate for fair compensation,” she said in a statement. “Ultimately, by investing in recruiting and retaining a diverse and talented workforce, Congress will be better served and so will the American people.”

To be writing speeches for a member of Congress and still struggling to pay your bills does not fit in with the idealistic dream of working on Capitol Hill, said a House Democratic staffer who recently left for an off-Hill job. 

“I was first a junior staffer in 2009 and I lived in a bad group house without a working oven or dryer,” said the staffer, who asked to not be identified because they don’t want to jeopardize future job prospects.  

The median salary for all House staffers is $59,000, an increase of $4,000 from two years ago, according to a new report from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion that looks at payroll data as of July 1. Near the bottom of the ladder, median pay for staff assistants in member and committee leadership offices was $38,000. That’s less than the private sector, the report says.

Single stream

California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the House Modernization Committee charged with proposing fixes for the workplace that is Congress, said she knows plenty of staffers who feel called to public service, even if they earn less. But when a staffer’s family grows, or they face some other financial challenge, sometimes they can’t stay. 

Lofgren said she’d like to see more student loan relief, and pointed to discussions about going back to how members funded their offices before the time of Speaker Newt Gingrich. Before fiscal 1996, members would have different appropriations for things like staff and office equipment. 

The House Appropriations Committee report that year said the consolidation to a single stream was made to simplify accounting practices and “allowed members to more easily show savings achieved when they did not spend all of their allowance,” a CRS report said.

As for formal recommendations from the reform-minded Modernization Committee, several are aimed at the issue of pay, with the goals of improving staff retention, recruiting and diversity.

Last Congress, the panel, often known as ModCom, recommended creating a nonbinding, voluntary pay band system, which can now be found on the House Chief Administrative Officer’s online HR hub. But the CAO can’t tell how many of the hundreds of House offices use the system. 

This year, the committee recommended creating a searchable database of anonymized average staff compensation information, since data has been piecemeal in the past.

Staying competitive

The pay landscape on the Hill is made especially complex by the decentralized nature of the workplace, where each member of Congress runs his or her own office and largely calls the shots. That’s why some junior House staffers may benefit from meatier MRAs, while others won’t. The answers, like the money, are waiting on members of Congress.

Rep. Rodney Davis, another ModCom member, said he trusts the job market on the Hill to help even things out. “And if not, I think we’ll see much more staff turnover,” the Illinois Republican said, adding that members will have to stay competitive to avoid losing their best people.

Slowing the Hill brain drain was a main reason lawmakers proposed hiking the office funds. The House-passed 2022 Legislative Branch spending bill includes a proposed $774.4 million in funding for MRAs, a $134 million jump over the fiscal 2021 level. (In the Senate, which sets its own funding levels, the proposed increase in Senators' Official Personnel and Office Expense Accounts, or the less-catchy SOPOEA, would be to $486.3 million, or about 5.5 percent.)

The proposed MRA bump finally would bring funding above the previous high water mark of $660 million, set in fiscal 2010, that was later slashed by GOP leadership trying to rein in federal spending.

Government watchdog groups have celebrated the MRA proposal as an important move to help the legislature regain its power as a check on the executive branch. “This year’s decision by House appropriators to undo some of the damage and reinvest in congressional employees is a significant step towards healing the House and empowering it to grapple with retaining staff and opening the door to employees from all backgrounds," said Demand Progress policy adviser Taylor Swift.

Others aren’t so sure. “If Congress thinks its issue of human capital is that people are underpaid and it’s causing them to leave, that is not something that’s going to be solved by kind of marginal increases to MRAs,” said Joshua McCrain, a political science professor at the University of Utah. “I think you would have to do a really full-scale change to the system and the infrastructure.”

Congress “would have to impose a structure on how members should spend their money to get the solution it wants,” McCrain said.