Late Monday night, the Democratic leadership in the House decided to delay a vote on a spending measure that would reinstate a cost-of-living adjustment for members for Congress. Their reasoning was simple: bad optics.
Though congressional salaries have been frozen since 2009, even this modest pay increase was immediately demagogued by legislators on both sides of the aisle. Republican Senator Richard Shelby denounced the proposal, stating, “To go out and say we’re going to get a pay raise, that’s the wrong message and that’s not going to happen.” His GOP colleague Ben Sasse went even further: “Instead of writing a budget or reforming our bankrupt entitlement programs, House Democrats are angling for a pay raise,” the Nebraska senator said in a statement. “These jokers couldn’t hold down a summer job at Dairy Queen pulling this kinda crap.” Vulnerable House Democrats like Cindy Axne and Tom O’Halleran quickly disavowed the provision as well.
But this disparagement belies an uncomfortable truth in Washington, one that few people want to admit: Congress is wildly underpaid, a fact that has important repercussions for how our country is governed.
The problem is simple: The salaries we offer to members of Congress ($174,000) are far lower than what people with their skills and experience could attract elsewhere. Members face the additional burden of having to live in the insanely expensive D.C. housing market and maintain a residence in their home state or district.
This pay gap, which has worsened over time, discourages talented people from entering public life and encourages skilled public servants to move into more lucrative fields. Low pay often prompts members of Congress to leave for jobs in lobbying, finance, or government relations, where they can earn substantially more money. (The same problem applies to Congressional staff, who are even more underpaid: A Congressional Management Foundation survey found that approximately half of outgoing staff members cited compensation as a significant factor in their decision to leave Congress.)
Voting to increase their own pay would actually be an act of political bravery.
These pay differentials can be quite extreme. When Eric Cantor, the former House Majority Leader, suffered a surprise primary defeat in 2014, he took a job on Wall Street paying him $3.4 million in his first two years. In 2018, Chris Dodd, a former senator from Connecticut, earned $3.9 million as the chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America.
Low congressional pay may also increase polarization by discouraging certain groups of people from seeking office. In his book Who Wants to Run? How the Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization, Stanford University political scientist Andrew Hall found that higher salaries seem to attract more moderate candidates for state legislatures, suggesting that extremists are relatively less likely to opt out due to low pay. (Lower pay does not, however, appear to deter middle- and working-class people from running for office.)
Within the political world, these facts are well understood, yet most lawmakers are unwilling to speak up about them. The reason for their silence, of course, is politics: Congress is terribly unpopular as an institution, and any effort to increase salaries risks a serious backlash. Few politicians are willing to risk being accused of lining their own pockets.
But there are signs that the conversation is finally starting to evolve. Most notably, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star in the Democratic Party, has used her prominent social media presence to advocate for higher legislator and staff pay. Here’s just one example, from March:
Many others agree with her. Before the provision was torpedoed, top Democrats and Republicans had actually agreed privately to support the cost-of-living provision. According to Politico, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy just a week prior to the vote, and both men seemed keen on pay raises.
But the pact quickly unraveled after backbenchers from both parties protested. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s electoral arm in the House, learned about the provision and blasted out a politically motivated email lambasting Democrats for trying to give themselves a higher salary. And just like that, politicians of either stripe were left defending their reputations — and denouncing the cost-of-living increases.
After the House’s decision to delay, Ocasio-Cortez spoke up again about the issue, warning that failing to increase Congressional pay forces people into lobbying:
To be sure, AOC faces an uphill battle in her activism around the issue. As Hoyer conceded, “I don’t think there’s ever a time when people think [raising salaries is] very good politically to do.”
Members of Congress are going to have to muster the courage to start investing in the lawmaking capacity of our government again. Paradoxically, voting to increase their own pay would actually be an act of political bravery.