By Timothy M. LaPira and Alexander C Furnas
Recently, House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) sent a letter to all House member offices authorizing them to spend an increase in their Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA). The Legislative Branch Appropriations bill was included in the omnibus spending bill passed earlier this month, which raised the MRA by 21% for the current fiscal year.
We applaud this exceptional boost in spending on Congress’s capacity to govern. It comes on the heels of decades of brain drain stemming from increasingly competitive pay on K Street, high turnover, and traumatic, morale-depleting pandemic- and insurrection-related working conditions on the Hill.
Citing our research, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) appealed to appropriators in 2021 to increase office budgets to cover a cost of living bump for staffers. After the omnibus became law earlier this month, the party leaders once again called for the increase to apply to House staff pay. The 21% MRA increase, then, is intended to catch up for years of declining wages in the House, which has become increasingly uncompetitive compared to the Senate, the Executive branch, state and local governments, and especially the private sector.
How does the MRA really work?
But, the MRA is an extraordinarily decentralized budgeting and planning tool. With few exceptions, as long as MRA funds are used for qualified expenses – district office rent, Member travel to and from the district, office equipment, staff, and more – Members may use it as they see fit. That is, House rules give Members de facto property rights over taxpayer dollars allocated to their personal offices, even though the money actually belongs to the chamber as a whole.
So, there is nothing more than a press release from one of the parties’ leaders to offer any guidance on how the MRA boost should be used. And, despite an emerging movement to create a staffer collective bargaining unit, staffers themselves have little to no say on how their supervisors choose to spend this newfound money. Speaking up is risky for at-will political appointees.
It remains an open question of whether Members will actually use the budget increase for its ostensibly intended purpose. Nobody has a crystal ball, but we do know that decades of increasing electoral competitiveness has caused Members to reduce their investments (ungated preprint version) in their “policy shops” in favor of more communications and constituent service personnel. No doubt many Members will see these new topline numbers and generously boost their staffers’ pay. But just as certain as death and taxes, many Members won’t.
What do staffers think?
Though we can’t predict the future, we do have data from our 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey that offers some insight. This non-partisan, academic survey of more than 400 DC-based staffers asked the hypothetical question, “Imagine that your office budget was to double tomorrow. If it were up to you, how would you prioritize spending these new resources?” The results are clear and bipartisan: staffers overwhelmingly prefer increasing pay for existing staff. Majorities of Republican (at the time in the majority) and Democratic staffers list increasing pay as their top priority.
Not only are these results bipartisan, they are remarkably consistent when analyzed by staffer seniority, employing chamber, and job function (legislative, comms, constituent service, etc.), and office type (committee, personal office, leadership). Increasing staff pay and hiring more legislative/policy staff are the top two options across all these subsets, with the lone exception that leadership staffers rank hiring more oversight staff as a top-3 priority the second most often.
What can be done now?
Even the most ardant free-market advocates in Congress should realize that the staffer labor market would benefit from increasing transparency between employers (i.e., themselves) and prospective employees. Right now, getting a job on the Hill is unnecessarily opaque, extremely competitive, and biased toward those with existing personal and professional networks. The status quo makes it increasingly difficult for traditionally marginalized prospective employees to get a foot in the door, especially since most current staffers got started with an unpaid internship. And even among those who do land a paid internship, Congress still has a dismal record of staffer and intern diversity.
One way to resolve this problem is for the House (and, for that matter, the Senate) to adopt a pay grade and step system that is standard human resources procedure in the private sector, as well as in the Executive (i.e GS scale) and the judiciary branches (i.e. JSP scale). In fact, Congress has a precedent for using grade and step systems. Legislative support agencies like Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office use the federal government’s general schedule, and services employees of the House Chief Administrative Office use their own schedule.
The fact that Members do not use an equivalent system for their own staff – even one that retains Members’ exclusive hiring/promotion/firing authority, but would still transparently signal staffer market prices – is a choice. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress took a step in the right direction recommending the establishment of “a nonbinding, voluntary pay band system for House staff that includes a salary floor and average salary for each position in Member offices.”
As of now, the Modernization Committee considers this recommendation to have been fully implemented by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which has developed job profiles with salary ranges available as a feature through the new HR Hub.
The problem is that the CAO system is nonbinding and voluntary, and it’s not accessible by prospective employees that do not already have access to it through official employee credentials. If Members can ignore it, then what’s the point? By design, the MRA system is decentralized, leaving as much autonomy as possible in the hands of individual Members. And, if only current (likely senior supervisory) staff can access this information, then it just creates even more of an information advantage for Members, it doesn’t improve transparency for prospective employees. Congressional staffers deserve the stability, advancement opportunities, and transparency afforded by a real grade and step system like employees in the rest of the Federal government.
The good news is that the House doesn’t have to wait for the ModCom to reach consensus on adopting such a system. The House Administration Committee already has the jurisdiction to adopt a binding and comprehensive grade and step system. Or, if the system remains “voluntary,” future Legislative Branch Appropriations could tie eligibility for MRA increases to adopting a more transparent pay and job title scale. At a minimum, hopefully soon we will see another letter from Chair Lofgren announcing the 21% increase in office budgets should be directed only to staffer pay for offices that adopt a reasonable, sound salary scale that virtually every other employer in the country uses as a matter of routine.
Timothy M. LaPira, Ph.D. (timlapira) is a Professor of Political Science at James Madison University, and Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking.
Alexander C. Furnas, Ph.D. (zfurnas) is a Research Assistant Professor at the Center of Science of Science and Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management, University.