Claudia Pagon Marchena, like so many Hill staffers, moonlighted at a Washington, D.C., eatery to pay her rent until she took a job with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She celebrated her last day at her coffee shop job that same week.
That’s because Ocasio-Cortez, who has called on fellow lawmakers to pay their staffs a “living wage,” is making an example out of her own office. The New York Democrat has introduced an unusual policy that no one on her staff will make less than $52,000 a year — an almost unheard of amount for many of the 20-somethings whose long hours make House and Senate offices run.
For Pagon Marchena, 22, the pay bump meant an end to a grueling, seven-day-a-week work schedule that was wearing down her resolve to stay in Washington, where rents average more than $2,000 a month.
“It was unsustainable,” she said. “I needed an office that was going to pay me a fair wage.”
The policy, which has not been previously reported, is the latest sign that Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats intend to buck a long-established trend of ostentatious austerity in congressional offices. Government watchdog groups say deep cuts to office and committee budgets have contributed to a lack of diversity in Hill offices, high turnover and congressional brain drain.
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Pushing for change
Even before Democrats took over the House in January, members of both parties had begun to call for better staff compensation.
House lawmakers agreed to minor increases for fiscal years 2017 and 2019 in the amount of money appropriated to members’ offices for staffer pay and other expenses, called Members’ Representational Allowances, or MRAs. The total budget of $574 million in fiscal 2019 is still below a high of $660 million in fiscal 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service.
And last year, House and Senate lawmakers ordered the first internal study of congressional salaries in over a decade. That push has accelerated in recent months, with the establishment of the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress, tasked with reviewing staff pay, among other issues.
Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, said she intends to ensure that momentum continues.
“We want to make sure that we are not only offering a living wage to our staff, but that we are hiring at the appropriate levels for the workload that we have, and that we are staffing our committees in a way that makes sense,” she said.
She added that such measures tie into the party’s overall agenda: “As we are trying to provide workers greater fairness in the job market and at home, we have to look at Congress.”
Ocasio-Cortez is trying to force the conversation. She made national headlines in December by announcing that all interns in her office would make $15 an hour plus benefits — a rarity for Capitol Hill offices in which interns are often unpaid. She has also highlighted the high number of Hill staff members who work side jobs to make up for median salaries as low as $35,000 for staff assistants, the lowest paid positions in congressional offices, according to a Legistorm analysis last year.
“We think that if a person is working, they should make enough to live,” said Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director.
He tied the issue to his boss’s broader calls for pay equity. Her Green New Deal resolution, for example, calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”
Change in action
Pagon Marchena and other employees in Ocasio-Cortez’s office pointed to their own biographies to show that the policy has real benefits.
One prominent study found that only one in four House members from the previous Congress had a senior staffer of color. Pagon Marchena is Afro-Latina. She came to D.C. from Miami on a rare paid internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
“My parents don’t help me out,” she said. “They don’t pay a portion of my rent. I help them out.”
Klarissa Reynoso, 24, a senior legislative correspondent in the office, left her first congressional job in another office every Monday through Thursday to work at a restaurant from 6 p.m. to midnight. On weekends, she worked 12-hour shifts.
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “And it’s infuriating to know that congressional offices don’t value that kind of work and compensate fairly.”
But because all congressional offices get the same budgets to use for staff pay and other expenses, there is only so much that individual lawmakers can do.
Ocasio-Cortez’s solution requires sacrifices for staffers at the top of the pay scale, potentially opening her to criticism from the right that her office policies, like her political identity as a Democratic socialist, call for a form of class warfare.
It could also pose challenges to attracting and retaining older employees who have obligations such as mortgages and child care — which in D.C. can cost $23,000 a year for a single child.
Salaries in Ocasio-Cortez’s office top out at $80,000, Trent said. That’s well below the median pay for Hill chiefs of staff at $154,634, according to the Legistorm analysis. And it’s a fraction of what experienced staffers could make in other jobs in Washington.
Trent acknowledged that some people would have to take pay cuts to work in the office. He said that was a trade-off that employees had been willing to make: “I don’t think you always put the burden on the bottom.”
He included himself, noting that he has two children and makes $67,000 a year. “Is it easy? No,” he said. “But part of walking the walk is understanding that everyone is going to have a little bit of a struggle. You divide it up. You work together.”
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America’s political reform program who has studied congressional pay, said not every office would be able to find top-tier candidates willing to take such a hit for the team.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who are really excited to work for her, and who might be willing to forgo some salary for a few years just for the excitement of working for a member who is so hot right now,” he said. “But is that sustainable for the long term?”
Individual members can only do so much to address what is really an institutional problem, Drutman said. He said he hoped staff pay will be one of the issues on the agenda when the new Committee on the Modernization of Congress begins to meet.
“Congress can’t continue to pay low staff salaries and expect to get and retain the best and brightest policy minds in Washington,” he said.
Ocasio-Cortez is still hiring, but Trent predicted that the final staff tally will reach 18, the limit for congressional offices.