Thirteen percent of congressional staffers make less than a living wage, report shows

Posted January 25, 2022 at 4:00pm

About 1 in 8 congressional staffers are not making a living wage, according to a new analysis of payroll data.

The problem is particularly acute for staff assistants, who are often the most junior staffers in congressional offices. According to Issue One, a “crosspartisan” group that advocates for transparency in politics, nearly 1,200 staffers in 2020 made less than the $42,610 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says is a living wage for an adult with no children in the nation’s capital.

Right around 13 percent of Washington, D.C.-based congressional aides came up short of that mark.

In the report, shared first with CQ Roll Call, Issue One analyzed LegiStorm data and found staff assistants make a median income short of $39,000 per year, with press assistants and legislative correspondents doing a little better at a median of about $44,000 per year for each.

“Congressional staff are the heartbeat of our legislative branch who work tirelessly on behalf of the American people. Yet too many are forced to take on side gigs or leave Congress for higher-paying lobbying positions just so they can pay their bills,” Issue One’s founder and CEO Nick Penniman said in a statement. “If we want a robust and capable Congress that is able to meet the needs of all Americans, it’s time to implement better pay for junior staffers.”

The Issue One report proposes several steps to help address the issue, including building on the House Select Committee on Modernization’s existing effort to create voluntary pay bands for different job titles and job descriptions.

“Instituting better pay for junior staff isn’t just fair for these employees; it’s also the best move for constituents. More competitive starting wages will allow Congress to attract a workforce that is more representative of the American people and more effective at addressing the issues facing all communities,” the report says.

The key proposal is for a salary floor. Paying lower salaries than the living wage in a high-cost city like Washington has long made it difficult for junior staffers who do not have second or third jobs, or support from their families — limiting the socioeconomic diversity of congressional offices.

A recent change on the House side of the Capitol catered to top earners. The maximum salary for many senior congressional staffers increased to $199,300, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in an August 2021 letter.

“Greater pay is necessary to retain staff of color in top roles, where key legislative policy is crafted,” Issue One says in the report. “At the same time, a focus must be placed on increasing pay and reducing barriers for entry-level staff of color as well.”

Issue One also mentions an often overlooked issue: rates of pay for staffers in district offices, which may reasonably need to vary depending on the cost-of-living in different parts of the United States.

“Despite operating as the primary contact for many constituents, district staff are often left out of the conversation about compensation and benefits,” the report says, adding that the LegiStorm data indicated that close to 15 percent of the district-level staffers were making short of $40,000 per year.

The report also recommends transitioning the House to a system where staffers receive two paychecks per month, rather than one per month. Senate aides are already paid twice per month.

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which is tasked with improving the workings of Congress, has endorsed switching to a semimonthly pay cycle, but the House has been considering that specific issue for decades. 

[This was supposed to be a big year for Hill pay. Staffers aren’t holding their breath]

To determine what counts as a “living wage,” Issue One researchers relied on a model developed by Amy Glasmeier, a professor in MIT’s urban planning department. Unlike the federal poverty threshold, her model takes geography into account. It estimates the earnings a person would need to cover basic expenses — things like groceries, health insurance, housing and transportation, but not entertainment, eating at restaurants or saving for retirement.