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Congress is bumping up its top staffers’ salaries. But its real problem is the underpayment of junior staffers.

The House’s changes will be among the most significant reforms to staffing in decades. Will they be enough?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walks to her office with staffers on Aug. 4 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that senior staffers in the House of Representatives would be eligible for higher salaries — one of the biggest such changes in decades. For the first time, high-level staffers could make more than some members of Congress, with the salary cap increasing from $174,000 up to $199,300 a year. Additionally, in 2022, members of the House will have office budgets 13 percent larger than in 2021.

This is one of the most significant reforms to staffing in decades. Some observers, reformers and elected officials, including the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, argue that Congress has not been able to retain enough of its talented and experienced staff. This has deprived Congress of the human resources — what scholars call “legislative capacity” — it needs to write, analyze and oversee public policy effectively. It may also make members of Congress more reliant on special interests that fill the expertise gap with their own personnel, and which frequently offer congressional staffers significantly higher wages to become lobbyists.

Will a higher salary cap solve these problems? My research suggests not. For the vast majority of staffers, these changes will not translate into higher salaries or reduce the attraction of taking jobs in lobbying. To achieve its aims, Congress may wish to consider reforms that would benefit all staffers, improving legislative capacity by giving dedicated staffers reasons to stay in public service.

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Members of Congress choose how to spend their office budgets

Every year, Congress allocates each representative a fixed amount of money called the Member’s Representational Allowance (MRA). From this pool — which, in the House, has averaged around $1.35 million per House member per year — representatives hire their staffs, send “franked” mail (paid for by taxpayers), buy office supplies, rent district offices back home, and cover such miscellaneous expenses as travel. On average since 2010, members have spent nearly three-quarters of their MRA on personnel.

The hope is that if members’ office budgets are raised, members will increase their staffers’ salaries. But who will get the higher pay? There’s a large gap between salaries for senior staffers, such as chiefs of staff, who are often well compensated, and salaries for junior staffers, such as legislative assistants and correspondents, who handle most day-to-day work. The typical House office has at most two staffers who make over $100,000 a year; in many offices it’s only one.

These salary differences are common on the Hill, driving many staffers to work second, or even third, jobs. My research finds that these staffers tend to last only a few years on Capitol Hill and often leave to join lobbying firms.

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Higher salaries and larger budgets are not magic

If House members increase salaries, their staffers might stay longer and be less tempted to cash in on their experience to lobby Congress — allowing lawmakers to retain more experienced support. But higher salaries alone won’t have much effect. That’s for a couple of reasons.

First, congressional salaries will still be far below those offered by employers such as lobbyists. For some job titles, staffers can make three to five times more money by leaving Capitol Hill. The potential salary increases on the Hill won’t be enough to outweigh the financial attractiveness of lobbying jobs.

Second, when the House increased the MRA in the past, members did not improve staff salaries, my research found. For instance, between 2008 and 2010, lawmakers increased the MRA by about 14 percent, more than what’s slated for 2022. In the figure below, you can see that increased office budgets did not appear to raise salaries for any staff categories. It certainly did not close the gaps between the best- and worst-paid staffers.

Because Hill jobs are in demand, lawmakers get away with underpaying

Why don’t larger budgets necessarily translate into higher average salaries? In my research, I find that staffers are willing to accept lower salaries if the office provides other attractive benefits — notably, experience in Capitol Hill policymaking and networking opportunities. This reform effort differs in raising the maximum salary. But since only one or two staffers per office come close to that maximum, it will benefit only a small proportion of congressional staffs.

To examine this in more detail, I analyzed data that covers the career trajectories and salaries of all congressional staffers from 2001 to 2018. Staffers who changed jobs but remained on the Hill tended to leave the offices of more junior members or those facing competitive elections to work in offices that spend more of their fixed resources on policy and have deeper ties to other offices. Instead of slightly higher salaries, staffers seek positions that build their own networks and offer experience in policymaking, which correlates with higher revenue and salaries in the lobbying industry.

In other words, while the higher cap may give a few senior staffers higher salaries, and others may see marginal salary increases, those increases are still much lower than the staffers would make by leaving for jobs outside Congress. And given the large supply of talented potential labor, members can get away with offering low salaries.

What’s more, many members do not even spend their full budget allocation. Even if they do, most allocate only 74 percent of it to personnel. More-junior lawmakers and those facing tougher reelection battles spend less of their budgets on staff and more on mail and travel, while more-senior members who have more influence over bills put it toward personnel.

Further, given fixed budgets, a higher salary for one staffer may mean lower salaries for others. The new salary cap suggests that those at the top are most likely to benefit, potentially widening the gulf between senior and junior staffers.

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So what can be done?

If the House wishes to keep the staffers who do much of the day-to-day work, it might wish to implement a pay grade scale, establishing minimum salaries based on experience levels, like that in the federal civil service. That would be more likely to increase the legislative capacity produced by Congress’s dedicated human resources.

But lawmakers write the laws that govern staff pay. Removing members’ control of salaries is unlikely to be popular.

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Joshua McCrain (@joshmccrain) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.

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