A Truce Falters, and a Plan to Raise Congress’s Pay Falls Apart

WASHINGTON — Last week, a group of freshman Democrats — primarily from districts long held by Republicans — approached the House majority leader with a seemingly odd demand: Block our pay raises.

It has been 10 years since members of Congress have gotten even a cost-of-living increase, and the leader, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, had privately negotiated a deal with Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, to allow pay on Capitol Hill to rise with inflation — without the usual political attacks that follow.

But for Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns, the threat of attack served to underscore a decades-old reality about congressional pay raises: The political optics were just not worth it.

“I just think it’s the wrong move for Congress to talk about the cost-of-living adjustment when there are all these glaring problems that have yet to be fixed and are waiting for congressional action,” said Representative Ben McAdams, a freshman Democrat who won his Utah seat by 694 votes.

As a result, a vast spending bill for the fiscal year that begins in October will reach the House floor on Wednesday without the section that covers Congress as lawmakers negotiate whether to maintain the frozen pay rate of $174,000 a year for rank-and-file members.

“The reason we have done this in a bipartisan fashion is because people are demagoguing it, and I don’t want any of my members who are in tough districts subjected to that,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters.

The renewed debate has prompted serious grappling with the failure of American politics to account for rising costs of living, especially for lawmakers who maintain homes in high-cost Washington and high-cost districts. Advocates for the raise, including some of the brash new members of the 116th Congress, argue that the frozen pay has contributed to high turnover rates and a legislative body that does not match the people it represents.

“I see members all the time, I see the financial pressure that they’re under because this job is unique,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, who recently returned to her bartending roots for an event protesting income inequality. “Members of Congress, retail workers — everybody should get a cost of living increase to accommodate for the changes in our economy.”

Mr. Hoyer, who has for years worked to broker deals to ensure the automatic cost-of-living adjustments written automatically into annual spending bills will not be blocked, argued on Tuesday that the limits on member pay also undercut congressional aides who do the bulk of the behind-the-scenes legislative work.

Adjusting for the cost of living would allow members and committees to pay staff more, since current law prevents the salaries for congressional aides from exceeding those of elected members.

“We have some extraordinary people who work on Capitol Hill — extraordinary — whose counterparts in the executive department, and clearly in the private sector, are being paid substantially more,” Mr. Hoyer said. “So this is not just about members. 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.”

Mr. McCarthy said on Tuesday that the issue evoked “kind of an impulsive emotion” that “we should pause and look at.”

“I do not want Congress, at the end of the day, to be a place where only millionaires serve,” Mr. McCarthy said.

But even as some House Democrats were voicing concerns about the optics of a raise, the House Republican campaign arm fired off an email attacking “socialist elites” in the Democratic Party for seemingly demanding higher pay, appearing to validate their unease. The National Republican Congressional Committee later deleted the news release from its website.

As word spread that the increase would not be blocked in the spending bill, freshman members began to pre-emptively counter it, vowing to reject or donate any additional money. Others signed onto a bipartisan amendment that would add language blocking the automatic increase.

A senior Democratic aide said conversations would probably continue among members about the fate of the measure. But Senate Republicans would most likely block a raise.

Since the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 first established the guidelines in use, Congress has had the opportunity to block the automatic cost-of-living pay adjustments. Had members received every adjustment since 1992 without any changes in the guidelines, the 2019 salary would be $210,900, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Instead, the language blocking congressional raises in spending bills every year since 2009 has cumulatively eroded members’ salaries by 15 percent, when adjusted for inflation. Other federal employees have received across-the-board pay raises, including a small one this year.

“We have been systematically disinvesting in Congress,” said Daniel Schuman, a former congressional aide who is the policy director for Demand Progress, an advocacy group that focuses on civil liberties and government accountability. “That means that Congress is terribly underfunded and not capable of taking on the executive branch.”

“What you’re really doing is cutting off oxygen to the government’s brain,” he added.

Partly because of the cost of maintaining two residences, Capitol Hill has a history of members who have slept in their offices, despite recent efforts to curb the practice.

Representative Abigail Spanberger, a freshman Democrat from Virginia who opposes a raise, said she would prefer to see a broader conversation about the challenges of becoming a member of Congress and what could be done to change budget practices on Capitol Hill.

“At a time now where so many people just don’t believe that their legislators are working with their best interests at heart,” Ms. Spanberger said, “anything we can prioritize that affirms that we’re worried about them, such as voting on bills that directly impact them and not us, is something we should be doing.”

Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, called it “utterly insane” that the House would consider allowing the pay increase to go into effect.

Many members of the new Democratic majority benefited from attacking Republicans on similar grounds, and they are well aware of the political effect in swing districts. Few were able to say what environment might allow a cost-of-living increase for the legislative branch.

“Not six months in the first year of Congress, that’s for damned sure,” said Representative Joe Cunningham, a freshman Democrat from South Carolina. “People sent me up here to stand up to leadership when I disagree with them, and that’s what I’m doing.”


Source

more recommended stories

  • Joe Biden Calls Cory Booker to Smooth Over Tensions After Segregationist Remarks

    WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joseph.

  • N.R.A. Suspends Second-in-Command, Implicating Him in Coup Attempt

    Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the.

  • Erdogan Says He Will Meet With Trump to Resolve Weapons Disagreement

    ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

  • Booker Proposes Clemency for Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders

    “The War on Drugs has been.

  • On Politics: Revisiting the Case for Reparations

    The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testified during.

  • Biden and Democratic Rivals Exchange Attacks Over His Remarks on Segregationists

    [18 Questions. 21 Democrats. Here’s What.

  • Can Europe Wean Itself From Fossil Fuels? Its Leaders Are About to Decide

    Want climate news in your inbox?.

  • At Raucous Reparations Hearing, Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes Aim at Mitch McConnell

    The House waded into the decades-old.

  • U.S. Navy Says Mine Fragments Point to Iran in Tanker Attack

    Fragments recovered from one of two.

  • We Put 21 Democrats on the Spot: Here Are 7 Takeaways

    We tracked down 2020 Democrats and.

  • Biden, Recalling Civility in Senate, Invokes Two Segregationist Senators

    Joseph R. Biden Jr., defending himself.

  • Donald Trump Attacks Familiar Foes at Orlando Rally – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search Donald.

  • ICE Signals Mass Immigration Arrests, but Not the ‘Millions’ Trump Promised

    WASHINGTON — Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

  • Trump, Seeking Re-election Since His Inauguration, Will Now Make It Official

    ORLANDO, Fla. — Almost four years.

  • As U.S. and Iran Face Off, Europe Is Stuck in the Middle

    BRUSSELS — As tensions between Washington.

  • Amy Klobuchar to Outline Plans for Her First 100 Days as President

    WASHINGTON — Senator Amy Klobuchar of.

  • On Politics: Iran Threatens to Exceed Nuclear Limits

    Good Tuesday morning. Here are some.

  • Landlords Oppose Trump Plan to Evict Undocumented Immigrants

    WASHINGTON — Landlords and local officials.

  • What Do You Want to See From the Democratic Debates?

    The 2020 Democratic primary race is.

  • ‘Hillary and Clinton’ to End Broadway Run Early

    “Hillary and Clinton,” a Broadway play.

  • Trump Campaign to Purge Pollsters After Leak of Dismal Results

    “These leaked numbers are ancient, in.

  • Elizabeth Warren Is Completely Serious

    A month earlier in Mingo County,.

  • On Politics: Trump Ousts Pollsters

    • Retailers like Walmart and Costco.

  • Drug Prices Are a Populist Campaign Issue. Here Are the Latest Proposals to Lower Costs.

    It can be hard to find.

  • Driver’s Licenses for the Undocumented: New York’s Immigration Land Mine

    [What you need to know to.

  • Visa Delays at Backlogged Immigration Service Strand International Students

    WASHINGTON — The visa applications of.

  • ‘Catastrophic,’ ‘Cataclysmic’: Trump’s Tariff Threat Has Retailers Sounding Alarm

    Already battered by the e-commerce revolution,.

  • 2020 Democratic Favorites for New York Donors? Biden, Buttigieg, Harris

    Mr. Booker, a fixture on the.

  • Trump Renews Feud With London Mayor, Calling Him a ‘Disaster’

    WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday.

  • Democratic Candidates Promise to Close Wealth Gap Between Blacks and Whites

    CHARLESTON, S.C. — Four top Democratic.

  • In Face-Off With Iran, Escalation May Depend on Who Prevails Inside Washington and Tehran

    WASHINGTON — As Iran and the.

  • Immigrants Brought Riches to Urban Schools. Now They’re in the Shadows.

    BALTIMORE — Mary Donnelly, the principal.