Something unusual will happen in the nation’s capital on Oct. 21, when the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress convenes a hearing on how much Congress should spend on itself.
Lawmakers talking about the legislative branch appropriation, which also includes compensation for the thousands of congressional aides they employ, isn’t unusual. What will be unusual about the hearing, though, is the bipartisan support that will be expressed for increasing congressional staff pay, something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade.
Two witnesses in particular highlight an instance of the bipartisanship that’s so rare in Congress today with its hyperpartisan tension and conflict.
Wendy Ginsburg is staff director for the Democratic majority on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations. On the same panel will be Zach Graves, policy director at the Lincoln Network, a conservative Washington-based nonprofit.
Both will present testimony that aggressively supports higher staff pay. Ginsburg’s appearance is especially unusual because staffers almost never testify before Congress. They’re typically seen—when seen at all during televised hearings—sitting behind members of the committee, feeding them questions for witnesses and other materials.
Members of Congress hire their staff and pay them from what’s known as the Members’ Representation Allowance (MRA), which gives each individual lawmaker an amount that he or she isn’t allowed to exceed.
Lawmakers determine the pay levels for their aides, but, on average, those aides working in the House make a little less than their counterparts in the Senate. Some aides with years of experience and hard-to-find legislative, political, or media expertise can make more than $100,000, but overall, depending on the position title, location, and duties, the average salary is $31,415.
Complicating the outlook for higher salaries is the fact that the MRA is part of the overall legislative branch appropriation that Congress must approve. The appropriation also includes funds for committee staffs, the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Government Accounting Office (GAO). Overall, Congress has approximately 20,000 employees.
Ginsburg’s and Graves’s testimonies reflect something else not often seen recently in Washington: agreement among significant advocacy groups on both the left and right. Two loose coalitions have made strikingly similar cases recently for Congress investing in its own resources, including paying better staff salaries.
“In recent decades, Congress has ceded far too many of its constitutional responsibilities to the executive branch. This means more policies are written by bureaucrats who never stand for election, and implemented by inefficient administrators and contractors with little meaningful oversight,” Graves, along with seven other conservative advocacy group leaders, wrote in a July 22 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee members.
“A stronger and more assertive Congress can better fulfill its Article I duties as intended by the Framers, restoring balance between the three competing branches of the federal government.”
Joining Graves on the letter were Kevin R. Kosar, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Jason Pye, director of rule of law initiatives for the Due Process Institute; Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs for the American Principles Project; China Tech Threat co-founder Roslyn Layton; Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president for political studies of the Niskanen Center; Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom; and Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Fiscal and Budget Policy Project at the R Street Institute.
The letter pointed out that the House version of the 2022 legislative operations appropriation “includes a 21 percent increase for personal, committee, and leadership offices, which would help restore staff funding levels to where they were a decade ago. It also provides for a 10.3 percent increase for the government’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which reports a savings of over $100 for each dollar of its budget in curbing waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Those increases “would pave the way for a legislative branch capable of keeping big government in check,” the signers wrote.
From the left came a Sept. 14 organizational letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that was signed by nine groups, including Demand Progress, Consumer Action, Common Defense, Greenpeace, People’s Action, People for the American Way, RootsAction.org, Sunrise Movement, and United We Dream.
“These additional funds are essential to bolster recruitment and retention of expert congressional staff and diversify those who are able to serve; empower committees, personal offices, and support agencies to fully meet the demands of their oversight and legislative responsibilities; renew the legislative branch’s aging physical and technological infrastructure, and address its apparent security issues; and ensure that the Congress will remain a sentinel of our democracy and a beacon to the world,” the letter reads.
Approval of the higher salaries isn’t certain, according to Kosar, who told The Epoch Times on Oct. 18 that he thinks the measure will “probably” be approved, but cautioned that “the budget process is in shambles this year, and the Senate has not passed the legislative branch appropriations bill.”
“Nor any spending bills for that matter,” Kosar said. “Which means Congress is stuck operating under a continuing resolution (CR), which basically caps spending at last year’s level. Pay raises for staff will be delayed if the chambers are stuck extending the CR into next year.”