Hoyer, Jeffries Secure 21% Increase in MRA as Part of Omnibus Bill
WASHINGTON — The mammoth $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package contains something for everybody, just about, but on Capitol Hill itself perhaps the biggest news is the inclusion of a 21% increase in the Member Representational Allowance, the budget line that supports constituent services and other functions of congressional offices.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the two most outspoken advocates for the increase, have argued the increase is needed to ensure members, leaders and committees can attract the best staffers possible.
They also hope the long overdue boost will lead to widespread increases in House staff pay, leading to greater staff retention.
“For months, along with a number of our colleagues, we have been advocating for Congress to raise Member Representational Allowance funding in the fiscal year 2022 legislative branch appropriations bill so that overworked and underpaid congressional staff can receive a long-overdue pay raise,” they said in a joint statement.
“With congressional staffers moving on to more competitive opportunities after an average of just three years, creating the space for raising staff pay across the board is critical to recruiting and retaining the best and brightest to help us serve our constituents, particularly in district offices that engage most directly with them on casework and services,” they continued.
“This will also help us recruit a more diverse workforce that reflects the American people we serve while keeping those on staff who have built up institutional knowledge essential to successful policymaking,” Hoyer and Jeffries said.
The two Democratic leaders reached out to Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, last year, urging them to increase MRA funding by 20% “in order to return budgets for House salaries and expenses to the 2011 inflation-adjusted baseline.”
“Salaries and benefits that are not competitive with the private sector hinder Congress’ ability to compete for talented and experienced staff,” Hoyer said at the time. “As a result, congressional staffers are more likely to leave after just a few years, and this brain drain and accelerated staff turnover impact our ability to effectively serve the American people.
Jeffries echoed those sentiments and pointed out just how big a workload congressional staffers bear, having to do everything from helping constituents navigate federal programs like Social Security and Veterans Affairs to drafting legislation.
“Whether they are here in [Washington], D.C., or based back in members’ districts, staff are crucial to executing the duties we as Representatives were elected to carry out,” he said. “When staff leave, members lose institutional expertise and valuable local insights that benefit the people we represent.”
In the end, both men agreed, increasing the MRA to allow for salary increases for staff was about the only way Congress could make careers in public service sustainable for most in the Capitol Hill workforce.
“To serve our districts to the best of our abilities, we must be able to recruit and retain staff at the highest levels, and that means increasing MRAs to offer salaries that make a career in public service sustainable,” they said.
They aren’t the only ones on Capitol Hill to feel that way.
“The Modernization Committee has spent years digging into how we can strengthen Congress so that it works better. An important piece of it has been figuring out how to stop the ongoing ‘brain drain’ that has sent talent to the private sector and left Congress reliant on lobbyists for policy expertise — which is neither consistent with the intent of our nation’s founders nor in the best interests of the American people,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Select Committee’s chair.
“For the last decade, the MRA has failed to keep up with increasing district populations, higher amounts of casework and correspondence, and cost of living for staff. That has made it difficult for members to recruit and retain staff. This increase to the MRA will go a long way in helping the House retain talented public servants with a deep understanding of issues so Congress can better solve problems for the American people,” he said.
Hoyer and Jeffries’ original letter to DeLauro and Ryan cited a September 2020 report issued by New America, a Washington-based think tank, that found that, due to inflation, congressional staff have effectively seen a reduction in pay as the cost of living in Washington, D.C., has increased.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the District of Columbia in 2019 reached $1,817 per month, the think tank found.
Moreover, the median home sale price surpassed $1 million in November 2020, leaving local homeownership out of reach for many House staffers and their families.
The median salary in 2019 for a legislative assistant in the House was $55,306, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the median salary for a press secretary was just $58,280.
However, those salaries are 20% and 8% below, respectively, their 2010 levels when accounting for inflation, the think tank said. Median salaries for legislative directors and chiefs of staff were similarly lower when inflation was factored in: 14% and 10% respectively, it added.
“House staff generally prefer working in public service and would remain on Capitol Hill longer if they no longer felt that their only option to afford the cost of living in the Washington metro area and achieve economic security in the middle class is to leave and pursue more lucrative positions in the private sector or the executive branch,” Hoyer and Jefferies wrote.
“At the same time, while we take steps to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, those coming from economically underprivileged backgrounds find it hard to afford internships and entry-level positions on Capitol Hill without family support. This often has the effect of advantaging those from high-wealth families. Preexisting wealth should not be a barrier to entry for a career as a congressional staffer,” they said.
In 2011, before the Budget Control Act’s spending caps and sequestration took hold, the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year budget outlook projected House salaries and expenses to rise to $1.867 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accommodate inflation.
The actual amount appropriated last year, however, was only $1.481 billion – a cut of $386 million, or 20.7%.
The increase included in the omnibus simply returns funding for House salaries and expenses to the 2011 inflation-adjusted baseline.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.
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