If we want to diminish the power of corporate lobbyists in Congress, one of the best but most overlooked ways to do so would be to give congressional staffers a raise.
Over the weekend, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that her office was going to ensure a living wage for all her staffers by paying no one less than $52,000, which constitutes a living wage in Washington, D.C., for two adults, with one working. Part of making that a reality in Ocasio-Cortez’s office means capping her staff salaries at $80,000. Staff salaries are not fixed: in 2018, each office had an average of $1.36 million to spend on staff salaries and official office expenses — the actual number will vary based on factors like the cost of renting an office in the member of Congress’s district. While $1.36 million may sound like a lot, with multiple roles to fill in D.C. and in the district, it’s spent quickly. In addition to in-district office space, members need staff who can draft legislation to enact a member of Congress’s policy proposals; staff dedicated to all the various policy issues a member of Congress must vote on; constituent services staff to help people who live in the member’s district; a scheduler to handle the flood of meeting requests and help the member manage the demands on their time; communications staff; and more. As Ocasio-Cortez noted, some of these staffers helping to run the country make around $30,000 in a district where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment goes for over $2,000 a month.
Low staff salaries and limited staff budgets don’t just mean that we aren’t investing in the people who help ensure we have a well-functioning government — they also empower corporate lobbyists. The revolving door is the most familiar problem: Someone working for a deep-pocketed trade association (the sort of association that represents industries like banking or telecom, and spends time crafting proposed legislation, compiling research and lobbying Congress) can make multiple times what they’d make as a congressional staffer, especially if they have lots of connections, even though they’re doing the same work. However, the impact of low staff salaries goes beyond the temptation for a staffer barely making ends meet in a very expensive city to cash out. After all, businesses now spend more money lobbying Congress than taxpayers do for all congressional staff. Why? Because when congressional offices are overwhelmed or understaffed, corporate lobbyists and employees of trade associations are eager to fill in the gaps and provide free labor.
Members of Congress frequently attend multiple hearings a week — sometimes multiple hearings a day — where they ask questions of witnesses testifying on a variety of issues. Someone on staff has to research the witnesses, prepare thoughtful questions, anticipate and ultimately draft follow-up questions, and solicit data or any on-the-ground information from relevant outside groups. In other words, preparing for a hearing takes immense time and resources. But staffers don’t just work on hearings; they are often juggling multiple other work items like editing press statements, replying to increasing levels of correspondence from constituents, or helping to plan events. All of this means that when corporate lobbyists fill up a staffer’s email with suggested questions for a hearing, it might be more feasible to use them, simply due to immense demands on staff time.
Limited staff budgets also mean that one staffer often covers a very wide range of issues — from labor to the environment to education — and thus may feel pressure to defer to the trade groups that present themselves as outside experts on issues the staffer is less familiar with. According to a longtime Hill aide for progressive members, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about job security, “given how thin people are stretched, it can be alluring to copy and paste material sent right to your inbox. Lobbyists deliberately make it easy for you to rely on them, and you need to be sophisticated and vigilant to suss out their client and motives.” But this sophistication comes from experience, and experience is too often desperately missing from congressional staffs. A 2017 survey of congressional staff from the Congressional Management Foundation noted that there are “no staff positions in Senate or House committees or personal offices with a median tenure of more than four years.” This high turnover leads to a loss of institutional memory and of expertise, making offices even more vulnerable to trade groups that come in with executives claiming years of expertise. Allocating more funds toward staff salaries would allow offices to either hire more people, or hire more experienced staff — both of which would reduce the power and leverage of corporate and trade group lobbyists.
Paying staff more reasonable salaries would also mean that more people from working class backgrounds could afford to take policymaking jobs. Lower salaries mean that staffers encompass a narrower range of opinions and experiences, because they tend to be wealthy people who can afford to work at a lower salary, or to get in the door as an unpaid intern, as a part of a pathway to eventually lobby. And that has a far-reaching cost. Research from Jacob Grumbach of the University of California, Berkeley, shows that Democrats born into wealth vote more conservatively. It stands to reason the same is true for staff members and how they’d advise their bosses. Just this week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) spoke in a House Financial Services hearing about being a twenty-something Hill staffer who was credit-invisible, under-banked, and used check cashers. Raising staff pay could also help increase racial diversity among congressional staff, something desperately needed: Only one in four House members from the 115th Congress had a person of color in a senior staff role, and as of 2017, only 5 percent of Senate staffers were Black.
How did lower staff pay become the norm in Congress? The decline began with Newt Gingrich and the Republican House majority in the 1990s, who aimed to shrink the government and empower the private sector. They cut both committee and legislative support staff by a third. The trend to decimate government staffing has continued. A 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service (another part of government that could use a raise) showed that all staff positions it examined had decreased median pay from 2006-2015. From 2011-2015, only one role, office manager, saw a meager 0.22 percent increase. The biggest decrease was a 25.83 percent decrease in pay for executive assistants. And caseworkers — the very staffers who are tasked with solving problems for people in a member of Congress’s district — saw a 15.41 percent reduction in pay.
Members are scared to increase staff salaries because the move could be perceived as Congress enriching itself, even though it’s only about giving more money to staff. To preemptively address these concerns, Congress could insist that any increase in the office budget go only to staff salaries. The raises could be combined with stricter ethics and transparency rules, to ensure that staffers don’t use their inside information to enrich themselves.
Congress members shouldn’t let years of anti-government rhetoric prevent them from increasing budgets that would create livable wages for those working long hours to ensure good government. If we want better government that is more resistant to the powers of money in politics, we need to invest in the people doing the real work. Let’s diminish the power of lobbyists and make a living wage for those helping to run the country in one fell swoop: Give congressional staff a raise.