This week, Democrats in Congress are in a bit of turmoil over whether to give themselves, and their staffers, a raise. Salaries for senators, representatives, and top aides haven’t gone up in a decade, and this year, lawmakers from both parties made a quiet deal to finally allow a modest cost-of-living increase. But a group of freshman Democrats from competitive districts threw a fit, worried that giving themselves a pay hike would be politically unpopular back home, and the bill got pulled from committee.
Hopefully, this is just a temporary hiccup, and the raise will eventually happen. By refusing to increase pay for themselves or their employees, members of Congress are making a shallow, self-destructive gesture that fuels the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the lobbying industry. Worse yet, it gives symbolic credence to the insidious conservative argument that government should be operated on the cheap. Skittish Democrats need to get over their fear of attack ads and treat themselves, and their army of underpaid aides, to better pay.
In theory, congressional salaries are supposed to be automatically adjusted every year to keep up with the cost of living. But lawmakers voted to freeze their pay at the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and have continued to do so ever since. Currently, most senators and representatives earn $174,000 per year (members of leadership make more; the speaker of the House takes home the most, earning $223,000). Adjusted for inflation, that’s about 15 percent less than 10 years ago. For most Americans, this would still be a fine, upper-middle-class living. And for politicians who’ve already earned a fortune in their previous career, it doesn’t make much of a difference. But members who aren’t independently wealthy are stuck paying for housing in high-rent Washington while supporting their families back in their districts.
It’s pretty rare for members of Congress to give up their seats explicitly so they can go cash in on their political experience (the one recent exception I can think of is former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz). For the most part, lawmakers tend to hang around until voters boot them out of office. But spending years earning a mere fraction of what they could as a partner at some law firm almost certainly motivates some of them to look for a lobbying (or lobbying-esque) gig once their political careers are finally over. You can pop over to OpenSecrets.org for a long list of former lawmakers who’ve whirled through the revolving door. Some, like former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, have been extremely successful at it. Others have been less so—former Cosmo centerfold and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown only spent a hot second at the firm Nixon Peabody before moving on to other things.
You know what list is much longer, though? The directory of ex-staffers who’ve done time on K Street. Congress is only as good as its aides, who research issues and write the legislation members vote on. And right now, those staffers are vastly underpaid compared with what they are worth in the private sector, which means those with a reasonable amount of experience have a massive incentive to turn lobbyist. The top salary for a congressional staffer has been wedged at $168,000 dollars since 2009. The median chief of staff made $155,637 last while, while the median office counsel earned just $72,333 last year, down from $75,502 in 2010. To put that pay in perspective, a first year attorney at a large law firm can currently bring home $190,000. You could try and ban staffers from taking lobbying jobs, of course, but if that even works, that will simply reduce the incentive for talented people to go into government in the first place. In the end, if you want any hope whatsoever of slowing down the revolving door, you need to pay people what they’re worth, so they’ll stay in public service. Instead, by refusing to give people normal cost-of-living increases, Congress has ensured that it will continue to bleed talent.
Low pay doesn’t only make it impossible to keep good staffers around. It also almost certainly keeps a lot of talented people from going to work on Capitol Hill in the first place. Right now, the minimum pay for a legislative correspondent—basically the first step on the career ladder for a lot of policy professionals—is $35,833. If you have student loans, or don’t have financial help from your family, it can be very, very hard to make that kind of salary work in Washington, and that pushes a lot of people toward opportunities elsewhere.
The problem isn’t just that Congress doesn’t pay its people enough, though—it’s that Congress doesn’t pay enough people, period. Because it has consistently starved itself of financial resources, Congress had fewer staff in 2016—the most recent report I could find—than at any time since 1979. Many of the personnel cuts happened in the mid-1990s, after Republicans swept into power on an anti-government platform. But Congress also passed major reductions to its staff budgets between 2010 and 2013 as well.
All of this is part and parcel of an ideology that says government is inherently wasteful and should be run on the absolute least amount of money possible. It leads to a poisonous place where Congress doesn’t have the resources necessary to competently execute basic parts of its job like conduct oversight or writing bills, and lobbyists can effectively craft legislation because they’re the ones with the expertise. (This is something you see regularly on the state level, where legislators are sometimes part time and have to work with threadbare staffs.) And it’s not all that different from problems at agencies like the IRS or SEC, where relatively poorly paid civil servants don’t have the basic resources necessary to audit the rich or actually police the markets and end up toadying up to their future employers, which increases everybody’s cynicism in government as a whole.
Giving into this dynamic makes precisely zero sense for Democrats, who in theory stand for the idea of active government. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias put it on Twitter:
The only answer is to break that cycle by standing up for the idea that it’s worth paying for good government and upping pay on Capitol Hill. If members of Congress are too timid to give themselves a raise, they should at least do it for their staffs.