House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have emerged as the highest-profile supporters of raising congressional pay, but they tend to take very different approaches to the cause.
Hoyer, who turns 80 on Friday and arrived in Congress eight years before Ocasio-Cortez was born, speaks as a veteran legislator with precise language. Over seven minutes Tuesday, Hoyer grew frustrated trying to explain that an annual cost-of-living adjustment is already automatic unless lawmakers vote to block it.
Ocasio-Cortez, barely five months into her first term, turns the issue into a rallying cry against income inequality. The 29-year-old rising liberal star talks about higher wages for everyone, from low-level congressional staffers to bartenders across the nation.
“We should be fighting for pay increases for every American worker. We should be fighting for a $15 minimum wage, pegged to inflation,” she said in an interview Monday. “So that everybody in the United States with a salary, with a wage, gets a cost-of-living increase — members of Congress, retail workers, everybody.”
The distance between those two approaches will be the measure between ending the era of cheap-shot attacks on Congress and finally encouraging lawmakers and staffers to stick around Capitol Hill awhile longer.
On Monday, after a contentious leadership meeting in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats postponed a vote on legislation that would have allowed the first increase in congressional salaries in a decade. That wage freeze began during the Great Recession, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported blocking the annual increase out of deference to struggling American workers.
It has continued, even as unemployment has shrunk to near-record lows and the stock market has soared, partly because so much of the economic boom was unevenly distributed toward the upper class — but mostly because congressional approval ratings remain at record lows. Few lawmakers want to risk campaign attack ads if they allow their pay to get a boost.
The result is that Congress has effectively bludgeoned itself. Large numbers of veteran lawmakers have decided that serving in such an unpopular institution provides less reward than a private-sector job downtown.
“It may not be politically popular to say, but honestly, this is why there’s so much pressure to turn to lobbying firms and to cash in on members’ service after people leave,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
But in Monday’s leadership meeting, Pelosi bristled at Hoyer’s pleas to push for the legislation allowing the pay increase. Several dozen freshman Democrats facing difficult reelection races rebelled, fearing a voter backlash after they won elections last year by campaigning against a broken Congress.
Any hope that this could be a bipartisan deal evaporated when the GOP’s campaign arm sent out a missive last week attacking Democrats for considering the pay hike.
The issue has been sidelined until further notice.
One solution is to follow the Ocasio-Cortez approach, thinking bigger, not smaller, and making the issue about increasing not just lawmakers’ salaries but also aides’ pay.
More so than lawmakers, senior staff members have fled the Capitol after a drastic cut in funding, first from GOP leaders in 2011 and later from a bipartisan budget deal’s automatic reductions, which shrank the total amount available for individual House office budgets from $660 million in 2010 to $554 million in 2016.
After a few increases, Democrats took the House majority in January and proposed a $29 million bump to the coming year’s office budgets. That increase, of just 2 percent, would bring the fund back to only $602 million — a 10 percent cut in real dollars over a decade, at a time when the District’s gentrification has made real estate prices resemble those in Manhattan.
Congress has always been for the young of heart, but over the past 15 years the share of staffers who are in their 20s has soared: from less than 48 percent in 2005 to almost 59 percent today, according to data compiled by LegiStorm.
More-experienced aides have fled for higher-paying jobs in the administration or at lobbying firms. Overall, the House now employs almost 600 fewer staff members than it did 15 years ago.
Hoyer blames the draconian cuts on Republicans who did not care for keeping experienced hands in Congress.
“I think that the Republicans substantially undermined the ability of the Congress of the United States to be effectively a coequal branch of the government. And as the executive has expanded, the congressional ability to oversee that expanded executive has contracted,” Hoyer said.
But he acknowledged that pushing for a big infusion to boost staff pay is not politically feasible. “We deal in a world of the possible, and I think we do not want to be perceived — nor are we going to do that — to do a big increase at one period of time,” Hoyer said, suggesting that parity could be restored “incrementally” over many years.
But this incremental approach would still expose those vulnerable Democrats to a vote that, on its basic appearance, looks like it is just boosting their own pay.
Hoyer has been at this for more than 25 years, working across the aisle at times for a gentlemen’s agreement to allow pay hikes without having them later weaponized against lawmakers in campaigns. He’s not in it for self-interest — Hoyer could easily be making a seven-figure salary if he had left Congress earlier this decade.
He wants to attract the best possible people to serve. “Members have now received 10 years of freeze, which means for 10 years they have lost purchasing power. We don’t want to have only rich people here. We want this to be the people’s House,” he said.
Hoyer thought he had a deal worked out with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), but politics got in the way.
Hoyer and McCarthy should find a younger Republican to join Ocasio-Cortez and make a bipartisan pitch for higher pay for lawmakers and staff alike, delivering a message about reform and diversity of backgrounds.
“This is why this place is teeming with people who oftentimes get here through connections or privilege,” Ocasio-Cortez said.