Making Congress Slightly More Capable: Appropriators OK COLAs for House Personal Office Staff

In a heartening development for anyone who cares about Congress as an institution, today the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee agreed by voice vote to an amendment offered by Rep. Farr (D-CA) to increase funding for member personal offices by 1.5%. This modest increase will help provide funds that can be used to give staff a long-deserved cost of living adjustment.

Here is the bill considered by the committee and the committee report. The text of the amendment is not yet available. We submitted testimony to the committee with a number of recommendations for action.

Funding for the House of Representatives

The Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee had voted to keep funding for the House of Representatives flat from last year, which overall puts spending for the House down by 14% since 2011. This is a big deal and a huge cut, as the workload of the House has only increased while the capacity of Congress has decreased over the decades.

These cuts have hit staff most harshly, whose numbers have dramatically decreased — especially in support offices and agencies — and their pay rate is significantly down when inflation is factored in. These cuts have hurt the House’s ability to perform its legislative and oversight duties. This chart from a recent CRS report tells the tale.

As you can see, pretty much every position in a Congressional office is earning less than an equivalent staffer did 5 or 10 years ago. While staff pay is not a significant predictor of why staff stay in an office, as the Congressional Management Foundation has found in a 2013 reportit is the top reason why staff choose to leave a particular office or stop working for Congress in general. I strongly suspect it also ties in to staff as relatively young and inexperienced, especially when compared to the executive branch and lobbyists.

Amendment to Provide Modest COLAs for Personal Office Staff

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) offered an amendment to empower member offices to provide their personal office staff a cost of living adjustment. His amendment would increase appropriations for Member Representational Accounts by 1.5%, approximately $8.3 million, which breaks down to about $18,000 per member office, each of which has 18 staff. Should all the money be spent on staff salaries — the MRAs can be used for anything from furniture to computers to travel to salaries — it would be insufficient to make up for the years of neglect, but may help ameliorate the inflation rate, which is expected to hit 2.4% this year. It would not help committee staff, which are paid out of a separate account.The money was taken from the $500+ million account of the architect of the capitol.

His amendment passed by voice vote after an involved debate. Only Rep. Graves, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee, spoke against the amendment, citing tight financial constraints. A few other members voted no.

I want to specifically single out for praise the Democrats and Republicans who stood up for the amendment. They spoke about the importance of protecting Congress as an institution. They talked about the tremendous costs of living in Washington. They explained the immeasurable services the staff provide their constituents.

The members include: Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), Stephen Palazzo (R-MI), Tim Ryan (D-OH), Steve Israel (D-NJ), John Carter (R-TX), and David Price (D-NC). Video of the 20 minute debate is here.

Even with a modest increase, it is insufficient to address the long term structural problems of pay for staff in Congress. As a recent report indicates, Washington, D.C. is the most expensive place in the nation to raise a family, beating out San Francisco and New York. Rep. Farr is retiring from Congress this year, and his warning about its capabilities parallels that made by Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) when he retired from Congress in 2014. There is something troubling when only retiring members of Congress feel they can offer amendments on issue of adequate pay for work, but it is heartening that appropriators are starting to address the draconian cuts.

— Written by Daniel Schuman