Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) is the lead signer of a letter from 110 representatives to the House Appropriations Committee requesting bigger budgets for their offices. The representatives are asking for more money so they can pay their staff fairer wages, allowing them to afford to live in the expensive Washington, D.C. area.
“For years, pay and benefits for the staff of Member offices, leadership offices, and committees have fallen farther and farther behind what is offered in the private sector,” the letter reads. “At the same time, the cost of living here in our nation’s capital has risen substantially, placing opportunities such as homeownership, rental housing, and childcare out of reach for many.”
The lawmakers are asking for a 21 percent increase to congressional office budgets after House staff salaries, they claim, were effectively cut by 20.7 percent in 2020 due to Congressional Budget Office projections.
Entry level staff especially are paid low wages, write the lawmakers, which places undue barriers on a person’s ability to work on Capitol Hill.
“The low salary available to entry-level staff continue[s] to raise barriers to entry and advantage those who are already wealthy and connected. These realities have hamstrung the House in our ability to recruit and retain the talented and diverse workforce we need to serve the diversity and needs of the American people in the best way possible,” the representatives write.
Ocasio-Cortez thanked her colleagues for joining her in the letter on Twitter and emphasized that the wage raises would be about giving everyone a fair chance at working for the government. “Generational wealth shouldn’t be a requirement to work in Washington,” she wrote.
In 2019, median pay for a staff assistant in the House offices was $39,130, according to the Congressional Research Service. For positions like legislative correspondent or field representative, median pay was between $45,000 and $50,000.
According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a living wage for an individual with no children in the D.C. area is about $41,500. If the person has one child, that figure bumps up to just over $81,000.
The fact that staff pay is often below a living wage on the Hill does, indeed, lead to the hiring of a less diverse staff. Low pay or no pay for workers in congressional offices can exclude people from middle- or lower-class backgrounds who don’t have the independent means to live in D.C., which leads to Washington staffers who are mostly white and from wealthy backgrounds who can have their lifestyles subsidized by other sources.
This is bad for staff retention, the letter writers say. Congressional staff often leave their jobs for the private sector, where they stand to make on average 26 percent more, according to 2019 research. “It is no wonder that the average staff member leaves Congressional employment after only three years,” they write. They also ask the Appropriations Committee to consider and account for the need to offer more competitive benefits to staffers.
Low salaries aren’t only bad for the staff — the barriers placed by low pay can also affect policy, Ocasio-Cortez argues.
“It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid, overworked staff just because some conservatives want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility,’” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “The lack of diversity on the Hill can be traced directly to our failure to pay staff a living wage. Low-pay also contributes to the undue influence of money in politics, with experienced Hill staffers frequently leaving to work for lobbyists and other special interests.”
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan), one of the letter signers, also emphasized the importance of congressional staff diversity. “The American people benefit when staffers have valuable experience and come from diverse backgrounds. Funding for staff salaries will ensure the House workforce isn’t made up of the wealthy and well-connected, but of dedicated public servants who bring the knowledge and passion needed to best serve the working people of this country,” Levin said.