Member and committee office staff on Capitol Hill work in an environment with very little incentive or opportunity for their employers to compensate them fairly for their abilities. Committee budgets are uncertain from term to term and Members pay staff out of a fixed allotment that has declined year-over-year until recently. The prestige of working for Congress – and for many staff, the promise of a much larger pay day in the private sector because of the experience – means that despite low pay, a steady stream of applicants is ready to fill any vacancies. Members, meanwhile, try to score small points with constituents by touting their frugality even as they undercut their policymaking and constituent service capabilities.
As a result, Congressional staff remain significantly underpaid while being asked to live in an expensive municipal area. The median House staffer salary is $59,000, more than $5,000 lower than the median private sector salary nationally. It’s the equivalent of a mid-grade GS-7 position in the executive branch in the Washington metropolitan area. The starting salary for a US Capitol Police officer is nearly $74,000 – only requires a high school diploma – and they’re eligible for a signing bonus.
One major difference for the Capitol Police is they have a union, which advocates for greater funding and benefits for the agency. (Most non-political congressional employees are on the Congressional equivalent of the GS scale.) Unionization levels the playing field with employers significantly by making workers part of the management discussion. Across the American labor market, nonunion workers make 83 percent of what unionized ones do.
Unionization, therefore, is one of the few forces that can push Congress as a whole toward pay equity with the private sector and executive branch by addressing the underlying structural problems. It also allows employees to turn improved resources at the office level into wins for employees. Within the nascent staffer organizing movement, we saw the first green shoot of impact last week when staff in Rep. Andy Levin’s office tentatively agreed to the first union contract in a Member office. The new contract raises median junior staffer pay to $76,000, or the equivalent of a bump to GS-9, and gives everyone a $10,000 raise. The figure well exceeds the $45,000 minimum salary set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May that came into effect in September. It also surpasses the $52,000 salary minimum Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voluntarily set when she came to office in 2019, which was long before the MRA bump was passed into law — a bump AOC advocated for.
Even though Rep. Levin will be leaving Congress, the successful negotiation of the contract is an important demonstration of how Member offices can navigate this process going forward and negates the argument that the unionization process inherently will be contentious. Setting a median salary well ahead of the current minimum, meanwhile, creates a solid target for other offices to shoot for and provides appropriators a rough idea of how much further to expand the MRA.
Because of Members’ preference to handle their own political staff hiring, it will take much more time for unionization to impact salaries across the House. For now, the half-dozen Democratic offices that have started unionization can use Levin’s office as a benchmark. Eventually, disparities in pay will push Democratic offices to close pay gaps to remain desirable workplaces. Perhaps the comparison will prod Republican offices to keep up as well. If Republican members hold out both on unionization and on wage increases, over the years the Hill may evolve into a workplace where tens of thousands of dollars separate staffers doing the same work in one party than the other.
Staff unionization should be unaffected by a change in majority in the 118th Congress, even if, as Rep Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl, Republicans do not think unionization is “beneficial” to the chamber. Remember that House Republicans led the effort to allow nonpolitical staff to unionize several decades ago. Based on how the law is written, we do not believe a simple House resolution can revoke or undo the right to unionize for congressional staff.
McCarthy specifically objected to the notion that unions could create a time limit for personal staff for working on the House floor that could interfere with potential long nights. This seems incorrect. Employees are supposed to be classified as exempt and non-exempt, depending on their duties and pay, and many senior political staff would be exempt and thus not eligible for overtime. Besides, if you’re making a junior staffer hang around, they should be paid overtime.
Also, there’s line drawing here that doesn’t make any sense. Many kinds of congressional staff are allowed to unionize. Would McCarthy want to take away unionization rights from Capitol Police officers and GAO employees? If the objection relates to the House only, would he want to take the right to unionize away from the Clerk, CAO, and Sergeant at Arms? If the concern is only for “political” staff because of their policymaking roles, would he want to take it away from staff at the Ethics Committee or the Joint Committee on Taxation, or folks like staff assistants and LCs, who often don’t make policy? The smartest and easiest approach, in our opinion, is to let staff in each office decide for themselves.
On the question of overtime, an important issue is that Congress has been miscategorizing employees who should be earning overtime. Earlier this month, OCWR issued new guidelines that included updating the Congressional overtime system to bring it in line with the executive branch and private sector. The House and Senate have to ratify its suggested regulatory changes on the subject, no unions required. As Taylor Swift on the First Branch Forecast blog, Congress has ignored Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s broader legislative fix to its employment issues for more than a decade and will need to approve OCWR’s recommendations in the lame duck session.
The Senate still needs to pass a resolution authorizing its political staff to unionize under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, and the House and Senate need to jointly pass a resolution concerning some shared staff (like at CBO).Last week, cafeteria workers announced they had ratified a labor contract with vendor Restaurant Associates. The four-year contract raises the minimum salary to $20 an hour, provides vision and dental plans, a new health care option, a small pension, and creates a formal grievance process for employees with the contractor. Cafeteria employees had protested Restaurant Associates’ threats of layoffs and reassignments this spring and summer, including a July walk-out during which Rep. Levin and 16 others were arrested. the opportunity slips away.
One of the most foundational observations about our current partisan political system is the asymmetric way the two parties are drifting from one another ideologically. Republicans have shifted much farther to the right over recent decades than Democrats have to the left. The reason for this asymmetry is people who identify as Republicans coalesce around shared ideology and identity, whereas the Democratic Party is more a collection of interests with similar enough goals to form a coalition. The rightward drift of the GOP is because more of its base identifies with a narrower understanding of what those principles of ideology and identity mean, a process that began with the creation of political infotainment and rise of figures like Pat Buchannan in the 1990s.
Until the Trump Presidency, the base of the Republican Party constantly complained about being let down by its leaders in “the establishment” for not governing according to supposedly shared ideological principles. Trump mastered the trick of focusing that frustration around his own personal ambitions and directing it at specific people within the party in his way. He became the vehicle for their ascension to real power and the absolution of their darkest political ideals.
Within Congress, the House Freedom Caucus now speaks for the core of this base – the MAGA constituency. During the second Obama and Trump Administrations, it was neither skilled enough in activating House rules nor large enough to obtain positive control. In the 118th Congress, that may change. Trump acolytes won many primaries in safe Republican districts, where election denial was practically a prerequisite for office. The Freedom Caucus has reached out to incoming Republican Members through a new freshman guide that explains their proposed rules changes designed to increase their impact on the legislative agenda. (Incidentally, the guide is excellent and accurately summarizes the power dynamics used by leadership in both parties against the rank-and-file members as well as identifying some reasonable and not reasonable solutions to some of those issues.)
As Election Day looms, key players in the next Congress have begun to stake out their positions to the Beltway press.
Potential Budget Committee chairs and Rep. Jim Jordan endorsed holding the debt limit vote hostage to extract social spending and entitlement cuts. Last week in his Punchbowl interview Rep. Kevin McCarthy did nothing to take that tactic off the table. In an interview with Politico, Jordan identified the annual federal budget and the farm bill as other leverage opportunities for forcing steep spending cuts. These battles wouldn’t be like those in the past, where the parties had cooler heads that could prevail. Republicans likely will use the debit limit to force a choice between undoing the New Deal and creating economic armageddon. Choosing to sow chaos to further a Trump re-election strategy is a rational (albeit insane) political move. If Dems are smart — and that’s a big if based on Pres. Biden’s recent statement — they’ll take the debt limit off the table during the lame duck.
Impeachment of President Biden or some cabinet officials has become another subject of Beltway speculation. When Republicans were in the minority, impeachment resolutions were a go-to messaging bill of no consequence for the crisis du jour. Jordan started talking about it last March over border control policy (Senator Ted Cruz beat him to it by three months). Republican Members introduced more than a dozen impeachment resolutions on a variety of issues this Congress. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced five of the resolutions herself. Even with notional Republican control of both houses of Congress in the 118th, the purpose of impeachment would be to waste Biden’s time and rile up the base, not to successfully hold the improper use of power to account. Doing it simply as revenge turns the Constitution’s strongest mechanisms for executive branch accountability into one more political stunt. Sowing chaos is a rational goal, but not a healthy one for our democracy.
A Speaker McCarthy’s ability to control the floor and his own conference is something interesting to watch in the lead-up to the new Congress from an institutional perspective. All the political incentives remaining for individual GOP Members point toward placating the hard-core base, particularly as it clamors for Donald Trump’s restoration. The Freedom Caucus, Taylor Greene included, already think of themselves as the true leaders of the party. Despite being an inconsequential back-bencher who was kicked off her committee assignments for spouting all sorts of ugly nonsense, she has raised $11.5 million this election cycle, about a million off Jordan’s haul. This is how she described her position in the next Congress to the New York Times: “I think that to be the best speaker of the House and to please the base, [McCarthy’s] going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway … And if he doesn’t, they’re going to be very unhappy about it. I think that’s the best way to read that. And that’s not in any way a threat at all. I just think that’s reality.”
How far will Trump himself go in requesting Congress assist his return to power? Are we confident leadership will push back against the base’s willingness to debt limit bomb explode, taking the foundation of global finance with it? It would not be surprising for authoritarians to create a political crisis as a way to undermine democracy and lay the path to a new political arrangement. The potential unknowns of the next Congress are much broader and more dire than the political press is capable of acknowledging.
Donald Trump’s political future would be a moot point if Congress had successfully impeached and convicted him. A simple Senate majority could have barred him from running for office in 2024. A new book by reporters Rachel Bade and Karoun Demirjian explains how Democrats undermined the process both times, particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In 2019, Pelosi resisted calls for impeachment from the Judiciary Committee and other House Democrats for months because she thought it would harm the party politically. Once some national security-minded Democrats seized on Trump’s efforts to leverage the release of military aid to the Ukrainian government for dirt on Hunter Biden, she consented to impeachment on those narrow grounds only. She also insisted impeachment investigators rush through their probe and conclude it by the end of the year, leaving only weeks to build a public case, blunt Republican counterattacks, and court potential Senate Republican votes. Her approach to impeachment left major issues on the cutting room floor and sidelined Republicans who were willing to put country over party. Better to unite the party than serve the public interest. Blah.
In the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, Pelosi made the same error a different way, delaying immediate efforts to impeach Trump when Republicans might have been willing to sign on.
Once the impeachment trial began, House impeachment managers wanted to call White House staff, Secret Service agents, and even Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler as witnesses to Trump’s actions on the day. The Biden Administration, however, refused Rep. Jamie Raskin’s request to depose anyone at the White House that day out of fear of setting precedent. Biden’s close ally in the Senate, Chris Coons, meanwhile, spiked the idea of calling any witnesses by claiming it would cost Republican votes to convict because Congress wanted to get home for Valentine’s Day. The Democratic leadership never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
ODDS AND ENDS
Protect Democracy has assembled a website based on its apportionment training for Congressional staff this month (which Demand Progress Education Fund supported). It includes video explainers, key definitions of terms, instructions for finding specific apportionments, and a recording of the entire training.
Four government transparency organizations urged Congress to expand judicial financial disclosure reporting to judge’s spouses.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy said that as Speaker he would not allow Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell to serve on the House Intelligence Committee – clearly in retaliation for their treatment of Donald Trump. Also, he said he would block Rep. Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee in some false equivalency situation with Marjorie “Jewish space lasers” Taylor Greene.
Veterans in Congress. Politicians and the media genuflect at the idea of getting more veterans in Congress — they’re already represented at 3x the rate of the general population — with typical leadership-led efforts generally elevating war hawks and security state aficionados. The New York Times points out that a new generation is coming, many of whom are election-deniers skeptical of foreign interventions. The theory behind elevating hawks, whether ex-military or ex-CIA, is suspect, as a government led by people close to the security state apparatus can create erode the principle of civilian control. While they wouldn’t like the comparison, it’s interesting to consider how much these putative hawks and doves have in common when it comes to deferring to power centralized in one person in the White House.
Office of Legal Counsel. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing with the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on how that office undermines Executive branch accountability to Congress and the rule of law. The unusual timing, a result of months of negotiations between the committee and the DOJ, meant that only two senators attended, but we were watching. We will have more to say, but it serves to underscore the point to us that OLC opinions must be proactively disclosed to Congress and the public — and we hope that legislation under consideration as part of the appropriations bill and the NDAA will become law before.
Law reform. The Seventh International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform, a conversation about how laws are written in the US and around the world, will be held November 3 and 4 in-person in DC. Register here.
Election day is Tuesday, November 8.