House Democratic leaders are learning the hard way that when it comes to the politically dicey issue of raising lawmaker pay, there is maximum risk with a minimum chance of gain.
Amid the fallout from Democrats in the chamber abruptly pulling a legislative spending bill from a broader package, leaders on Tuesday were left to state an easy to articulate but difficult to achieve goal: that the only path to bigger paychecks was through bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.
On both sides of the aisle, there were different levels of optimism about the possibility of success, however.
Democratic leaders thought they had cooperation from their Republican counterparts on the pay raise, but attacks from GOP campaign operatives and a failure to thoroughly vet the idea with their own rank and file left them exposed. On Monday evening, they beat a hasty retreat, pulling the Legislative Branch appropriations bill, which allowed a cost-of-living increase, out of the spending package scheduled to hit the floor Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said he’s talked to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy about the cost-of-living adjustment, and he’s hopeful they can reach a bipartisan agreement to proceed with it this year.
“Every time we have done this, in terms of having the COLA before, it’s been done in a bipartisan way, and I expect that’s how it’s going to be this time,” Hoyer said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries echoed Hoyer on the key to a successful deal. “If we’re going to proceed, we’re going to proceed in a bipartisan way,” the New York lawmaker said.
But Republican leaders appeared unenthusiastic Tuesday about taking action on the cost-of-living adjustment this year. McCarthy told reporters the issue of member pay is something that needs to be addressed, but he wants to keep the decade-long pay freeze in place until further study is done.
“I know when you talk about this subject, about a cost-of-living increase, it does evoke an emotion, kind of an impulsive emotion,” the California Republican said.
McCarthy suggested lawmakers pause the emotional rhetoric surrounding the issue of member salaries and allow for a study, but he didn’t reject the possibility of eventually lifting the freeze.
“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,” he told reporters.
Told of McCarthy’s comments about wanting to stick with the pay freeze for now, Hoyer said he expects McCarthy will eventually have more to say. He also reiterated his intention to address the issue.
“There are a number of ways to deal with it, but we’re going to have a vote on it at some point in time,” Hoyer said.
A May 2019 study from the Congressional Research Service found that pay for lawmakers, which has been frozen since 2009, has decreased by about 15 percent compared to inflation and other factors over that same period. Members of the House earn $174,000 annually, with party leaders making more.
Democratic leaders had planned to leave out in the Legislative Branch spending bill language to freeze member pay that had been included in prior-year bills. The absence of that language would have provided for a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.6 percent, or $4,500, effective January 2020.
Both rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats proposed a flurry of amendments seeking to reinstate the pay freeze provision. Of the 10 amendments submitted to the House Rules Committee on that topic, six came from freshman Democrats whom the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified as vulnerable for re-election in 2020.
“I’m happy that they’ve listened to us with concerns and pulled it from consideration,” one of those Democrats, Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, told CQ Roll Call.
McAdams said McCarthy and Hoyer tabled the member pay issue after hearing a wave of negative responses. He added that this was a measure many Democrats would not support.
Ohio GOP Rep. Warren Davidson said it was smart for the Democrats to pull the bill, adding that he would vote “no” on a member pay increase. He said raising congressional pay would not be popular.
Rep. Jamie Raskin said he hasn’t given much thought to the pay increase issue, but he understood the complicated politics behind it.
“I imagine it’s a tough thing given that we passed all this legislation, but it’s just sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk,” the Maryland Democrat said, referring to the Senate majority leader. “So it might be awkward if everything that we’ve passed from prescription drug reform to the Equality Act to HR 1 doesn’t go through and the one thing that goes through Congress is a COLA increase.”
Freshman Rep. Greg Stanton, a co-sponsor of one of the amendments to continue the pay freeze, told CQ Roll Call he didn’t want increasing member pay to be among the first actions he took in office. The Arizona Democrat stressed that he could be making more money as a lawyer but chose public service instead.
“I view public service as an amazing opportunity,” Stanton said. “I’m not here to make more money.”
Stanton also noted that the monetary trade-off for entering into public service extends to his staff.
“Public service is a sacrifice for everyone, including our professional staff,” he said.
A question of elitism
The House Democratic defectors on the COLA caused the party heads to go back and re-evaluate how to proceed, but those who support the pay increase range from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana.
On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “ALL workers should get cost of living increases. That’s why minimum wage should be pegged to inflation, too.”
Richmond said the adjustment would help open Congress to more than just the elite.
“I think you have to address member pay whether it’s through a cost-of-living adjustment or whether it’s a per diem, but it has to be something,” Richmond said. “You want this to be an elite institution, you don’t want this to be an institution of the elite.”
Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, supports a pay increase because she said it would help encourage people from a diversity of incomes and backgrounds to serve in Congress.
“I don’t want to see these institutions limited to only people who are very wealthy,” the California Democrat said, echoing McCarthy’s remarks.
Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said he would support a COLA increase but noted that the GOP is “split” and that the issue doesn’t fall along party lines.
Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne hopes leadership will decide to bring the Legislative Branch spending bill to the House floor without the pay increase. He said “virtually all” of the 15 to 20 Republicans he’s spoken to about the cost-of-living adjustment are against it.
Hoyer said the issue is deeper than just member salaries going up, noting that congressional employees’ salaries “are capped because the members are being capped.”
“This is about the institution of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate and our ability to be competitive as an employer and to get the best and brightest,” he said.
For the vast majority of staff roles on Capitol Hill, salaries are capped at the amount that lawmakers are paid, something McCarthy also alluded to in his comments Tuesday.
So at least among leaders, there is a recognition of a problem. Addressing it, though, will have to wait for now.
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