Capitol Hill staffers are fed up with unlivable salaries that hinder diversity and kneecap careers
- Hill staffers have put up with low wages for years. Some start in the high $20,000s.
- Powerful Congress members want to give them a raise after a pandemic and the January 6 insurrection.
- Current and former staffers tell Insider how low pay affected their lives and harms diversity.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Several days a week, a Capitol Hill intern would rise before dawn to take the bus not to her congressional members’ office but to a Starbucks, where she worked 5:30 a.m. shifts before heading east to start her unpaid full-time internship.
On other days, she left the hallowed halls of Congress at dusk, exhausted, only to work several more hours as a barista giving other Washingtonians their energy fix.
“It’s incredibly stressful,” she told Insider of the experience. “I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. I was looking very tired. I was breaking out a lot. My hair was not in great shape — it was thinning out.”
She made a total of $4,958 while she worked for Starbucks, declining to take the benefits that came with her managerial status because she needed every penny of her paycheck to make ends meet, she said. She survived the internship and landed a full-time job working for a member of Congress.
But the starting pay of $32,000 still wasn’t enough to cover her financial obligations.
The staffer, who’s also a representative for the nonpartisan Congressional Hispanic Staff Association and now makes $43,000, said she occasionally delivered food for DoorDash or tutored students. But she had to pause her outside jobs because their low pay wasn’t worth the added stress.
After one of the most hellish years for congressional staff on record — they endured a pandemic, an insurrection, and endless vitriol brought on by toxic political debates of the 2020 election — some have simply lost faith that serving the public on the Hill is worth the financial toll.
Insider spoke with 14 current and former staffers in the House and Senate about how low pay had affected their lives, careers, and ability to serve the public. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because their offices do not authorize them to speak with the press. But they said they were compelled to speak up because they believed they and many of their colleagues were at or near a breaking point.
[Do you have a tip about Capitol Hill workplace issues? Bad bosses? Toxic offices? Systemic problems? Email the reporter at [email protected], and we’ll keep you anonymous.]
Some congressional staffers make barely enough to live in Washington, DC, one of the nation’s most expensive cities, or stay on the Hill long enough to master policy disciplines or grow into leaders. Low pay and a chronic lack of diversity among Hill staffers are also inextricably linked, some staffers said, with meager salaries preventing many Black, Latino, Asian American, and other nonwhite job aspirants from carving out a gainful career in Congress.
A lot of talk, little change
Democratic members of Congress routinely rail against income inequality in general, and Republicans often demand more efficient government and greater oversight of the executive branch. Some have spoken publicly about giving their staffers a raise.
And while members, journalists, and pundits called for raises in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019, there’s been little change.
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York made headlines when she pledged her most junior staffers would earn at least $52,000 annually, but that was just one office.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, has renewed advocacy for higher staff pay and better benefits. The effort has some level of bipartisan support, with at least one House Republican, former GOP staffers, conservative think tanks, and some advocacy organizations lobbying hard for change.
“Congressional staff choose a career in public service due to their deep sense of commitment for this country, yet with deteriorating pay and rising costs, many staffers are finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves as living costs have continued to rise in Washington, D.C.,” a group of nine staff associations, including the Middle Eastern and North African Staff Association, the Senate Black Legislative Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, wrote in a letter to Hoyer in May.
In the meantime, congressional staffers continue to leave for better-paying opportunities. Congress loses skilled workers with policy experience and nuanced understanding of the communities they serve.
“There is an incentive for underpaid staff to sell out to K Street and go lobby,” said Zach Graves of the conservative Lincoln Network, which joined 29 other groups across the political spectrum on May 17 to urge lawmakers to give staff a raise. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if the disparity is too high, you create bad incentives that don’t serve the interests of the American people. You run the risk of not having the capacity to make good legislative decisions.”
‘Overworked and underpaid’
One former chief of staff was blunt about the trade-offs of working for Congress.
“If you want a job on the Hill because you saw ‘House of Cards,’ and you think you’re going to be like Kevin Spacey, then walk away. That’s not the job,” he said. “The job is you’re going to be overworked and underpaid, and you’re going to be successful … because you really believe in what we’re doing.”
Working second jobs to stay afloat is commonplace among junior-level staffers on Capitol Hill, multiple employees told Insider. That’s on top of the grueling hours and 24/7 availability that members expect from their staff.
Others lived far from the Hill or with multiple roommates, all while seeing little prospect of becoming homeowners. One former staffer who eventually rose to chief of staff recounted relying on catered Hill luncheons and briefings to provide up to three free meals a day when he was a junior aide.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington is $2,195, and it’s $1,722 for a studio, according to the real-estate-listing site Zumper.
“You’re taking home almost nothing, when you think about how much rent costs, how much it costs to feed yourself,” in DC, a former legislative aide who left Congress to work in city government, told Insider.
“Maintenance, add on your vehicle if you’re commuting to work, getting your suits cleaned and dry-cleaned, making sure you’re presentable … because you’re representing that office” further chips away at the budget and makes it difficult to save, the aide, who started on the Hill at $45,000 a year, said.
Junior roles such as staff assistants or legislative assistants can start out in the high $20,000 range and broach the low $30,000s.
Some staff assistants are required to have cars because they also work as drivers for their members, adding costs of owning, insuring, and maintaining a vehicle to their already tight budgets.
“You’re immediately eliminating a lot of communities of color” with that requirement, the former House chief of staff said.
It doesn’t get much better for junior and midlevel staffers.
One recently departed Democratic House staffer joined Congress as a staff assistant, the lowest level employee in an office, even though he had prior experience and an advanced degree.
He was 32 years old and made $31,000 a year.
After a few years, he had worked his way up to $43,000 — hardly a princely sum.
“I have almost a decade’s worth of experience at this point, and it’s like, I should not be making this low. It was infuriating,” he told Insider.
Last winter, he left Congress — and Washington — for a job that paid more than $100,000 annually and didn’t burn him out.
Salaries can top out about $160,000 for chiefs of staff, the highest-ranking employee in an office, because members themselves make $174,000, and it’s weird if you’re making more than the boss. Some senior committee staffers or legal counsels can also make in the mid-to-upper $100,000s.
Most staffers never make it to chief of staff or other senior-level roles because they are lured away by higher salaries or face professional roadblocks because of bias, workplace issues, and burnout.
The former chief of staff said he felt added pressure to prove that he was qualified for well-paying senior-level positions and compete with white staffers, whose qualifications might be taken for granted.
“There are certain stereotypes of Asian Americans,” he said. “And I tried to create my résumé and my professional profile to push against that.”
‘Forced to fend for themselves’
The problem is rooted in how staffers are paid.
Overall funding for the legislative branch must not only fund the Senate and House but also offices like the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police — two bodies that will likely get significant investments after the pandemic and the January 6 attack.
Out of that funding comes large pots of money for the House and the Senate, which get distributed to every lawmaker’s office. Over time, those pots got smaller even as the cost of living in DC and in members’ districts rose.
The pool of money for the House — called the Members’ Representational Allowance — is now 20% lower than its peak in fiscal year 2010.
The Senate’s money has also shrunk since its peak in fiscal year 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s been on the rise for the past couple years but still hasn’t recovered completely. Adjusted for inflation, that pool of money is now equivalent to 2008 levels.
In the House, every member’s office gets the same allotment, while in the Senate, the money available to an office can sometimes depend on the size of the state they represent. Committees are funded through a separate pool of money.
Lawmakers have to work within that tight budget to not only pay staffers but also fund travel, office supplies, direct mail, and more. Salaries are set by the chief of staff or members themselves based on budget constraints. And their decisions are not always equitable.
“Whenever I do a performance review, it’s always praise, ‘You’ve done so well,’ ‘You’ve broken an internal record.’ But it doesn’t always translate into the fair compensation I’m looking for,” one current Democratic legislative aide told Insider. “The answer is always, ‘We don’t have enough in the budget right now.'”
There’s no formal human-resources office for Congress that can handle pay disputes or set fair wages across the institution. Rather, each office operates like its own business, setting salaries, promotions, and raises.
“Every staffer is forced to fend for themselves each and every year,” one senior Democratic House staffer said.
Low pay stymies diversity efforts
Multiple staffers told Insider a lack of equity in Hill salaries contributed to staffers of color either not getting in the door or not being able to work their way toward senior positions because the pay is unsustainable.
A 2019 House diversity survey found that nearly 70% of staffers were white, while just 14% were Black or African American, and just 7% were Asian. About 12% identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino and may be of any race. (The Middle Eastern and North African Staff Association told Insider that its members were counted with white staffers, which they want fixed so they can study the effect of pay on these employees.)
A full 47% of the 5,290 staffers who responded to the survey said they were dissatisfied with their pay, and 44% said they had considered employment elsewhere.
“Most Black people can’t afford to take a free internship, an unpaid internship,” said the former legislative aide who left the Hill for a job in city government — and a salary approaching six figures. The gateways to the Hill “ultimately serve as barriers for things like diversity,” he said.
“These issues are not silos,” he added. “These issues of diversity, of staff pay, of retention, all these other things that are connected to having staff on Capitol Hill, they’re all entangled.”
The current Democratic legislative aide, who is an Asian American woman, found out that a white male colleague promoted into the same role as her but who had less experience with legislative issues made $10,000 more than she did.
She said she confronted her chief of staff with an outline of her accomplishments and evidence of how her pay compared with what others made in the role.
“I looked him in the eye and said I deserve everything I’m asking for,” she said.
She eventually rose to a more senior position making $56,000 — but still makes less than her white colleague, she said.
“I am also the only person of color in my DC office,” the legislative aide said. “Oftentimes, I have to go above and beyond and just be perfect so there is no fault in order to ask for what I deserve.”
Her friends outside the Hill frequently tell her she could be making two or three times as much in the private sector, a possibility that seems more appealing each day, she said.
Solutions but no decisions
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has made staffer salaries a priority, holding several hearings this session.
“We’re spending so much money. It’s beyond my comprehension that we would not invest in having the best possible staff running our country,” Rep. William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican and vice chair of the committee, said at a May 6 hearing.
The current and most likely proposal, backed by Hoyer, would increase the Members’ Representational Allowance — that pot of money that’s distributed among all House offices — by 20%. He’s seeking a similar increase for committee and leadership budgets. Hoyer, along with Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Zoe Lofgren of California, also wants the House to study expanding staffer benefits.
In their joint letter, the nine staff associations banded together to urge lawmakers to adopt this proposal.
A separate February letter from 30 advocacy groups, including the Lincoln Network and Demand Progress, urged leaders on the House and Senate appropriations committees to pass legislation that would increase the legislative branch’s budget, which funds office stipends, by 10%.
Yet another idea would create a tiered system where staffers would earn a specific range for each job, similar to what exists across the federal government.
No decision on how to fix staff pay has been made yet. And whenever it comes, it might be too late to keep some talent on the Hill.
One member of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus told Insider he had to decline three opportunities to work in senators’ offices because he would, in fact, be taking a pay cut from his $60,000-a-year salary.
He hoped to make a career in Congress but said “at this point, as a person of color in America, I’ve got to go somewhere that’s willing to pay me according to my worth.”
“If it’s on the Hill, great,” he said. “If it’s elsewhere, then great.”
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