Democrat Urges Congress to Pay Staff Better

Low pay, high turnover, weaken Congress’s power and effectiveness
By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.
March 28, 2019 Updated: March 28, 2019

WASHINGTON—Hiring a bigger and better-paid staff is “the first step” to reversing the many years Congress has “intentionally transferred more and more power to the executive branch,” according to a Massachusetts Democrat.

“For decades, Congress has slowly but surely eroded our capacity to serve as a co-equal branch of government,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress in recent testimony.

The committee was created by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to recommend measures for making Congress more efficient and productive.

“We have intentionally transferred more and more power to the executive branch by passing laws that require administrative agencies to fill in the details,” she said.

“Many factors have contributed to this crisis,” but “the first step in the solution is investing in the people who make Congress work,” Clark said. “Simply put, we don’t have enough staff to do our jobs, and the staff we do have are underpaid and don’t stay very long.”

About 20,000 mostly young men and women work for individual senators and representatives, congressional committees, and legislative agencies like the Government Account Office.

Congressional aides routinely work extremely long hours, can be fired without explanation or recourse, and often must work in cramped office spaces.

“Some members of Congress get a reputation for being hard to work for, whether due to anger management, shady ethics, poor pay, demanding too much or creating a toxic work environment,” according to Legistorm’s “Worst Bosses” analysis.

“One possible side-effect of high turnover is making an office less responsive to constituents, while being more dependent on lobbyists for advice,” Legistorm said.

Senators and representatives depend on staff aides to keep up with thousands of bills, amendments, studies, and reports on pending legislation, and to provide credible advice and counsel on which to support or oppose.

But there aren’t as many congressional staffers as there once were.

“Between 1980 and 2014, the House actually lost staff. In fact, our committees now employ roughly half as many staffers as they did in 1980,” she told the modernization panel.

The result is that “Google employs roughly 6.5 times as many staffers to run its company as the House and Senate combined have to oversee the entirety of the United States federal government,” Clark said.

Despite the heavier workload, congressional staff salaries are down, Clark said.

“Between 2011 and 2015, the average inflation-adjusted salary for House professional staff went down 12 percent, the salary for House legislative directors went down 6 percent, and the salary for House legislative assistants went down 6 percent,” she said.

There are also huge gaps between congressional and private sector pay for similar positions, according to R Street Institute Senior Fellow Casey Burgat, who recently completed a detailed analysis of congressional salaries and tenure.

The gap ranges from 20 percent to 35 percent for lower level jobs, and between 65 percent and 145 percent for senior positions, based on 2017 data, Burgat is expected tell the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee on April 2, according to a copy of the testimony reviewed by The Epoch Times.

“These salary differences have proven over and over again to be too appealing to pass up, as capable aides take their experience and congressional networks to the private sector and special interest groups,” Burgat will testify.

There is also high turnover among congressional aides, Clark testified.

“Fifty percent of House legislative directors had been in their position for less than two years and only 12 percent stayed on the job for more than five years. Meanwhile, the median tenure for a House legislative assistant is just over one year,” Clark said.

Clark encouraged the committee to recommend significant increases in staff salaries so that officials will no longer have to “make a decision between paying their experienced staff enough to retain them, or paying their junior staff a livable wage.”

To reduce turnover, Clark suggested “something as simple as the House providing an additional $100 a month to a staffer’s salary for every year of service,” as well as “establishing House-wide policies that guarantee the right of staff to take paid family leave.”

Congressional administrative budgets became a hot issue when Republicans under Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich targeted staff size and pay freezes and reductions beginning in 1995.

Jim Manley, former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told The Epoch Times that Republicans were wrong to make such cuts “just to show voters that they are tough in spending. If you want to attract good talent and conduct effective oversight, you need to attract and keep staff.”

Burgat said salaries remained flat under both parties, but committee funding increased under Democrats after 2006.

Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.