America should invest in its federal legislature
Congressional and especially staff pay is way too low
One of my most popular takes on Capitol Hill is that both members of Congress and their staff should be paid more, a take that is sadly not that popular with the mass public.
But it should be. And to be clear, that’s not because congressional staff are necessarily suffering in grinding poverty and deserve the public’s pity. The situation instead is that congressional staff work is mostly done by smart, hard-working people who are also very young and tend to move on with their professional lives pretty rapidly. Jobs like Legislative Director and Communications Director don’t pay poverty wages, but they also don’t pay a competitive salary for an educated professional with a decade or three of job experience and solid performance reviews.
This in turn drives a lot of the dynamics that annoy people about Congress.
And it becomes a bit of a bitter cycle. Everyone hates Congress and nobody wants to throw money at people who they hate. But to an extent, you get what you pay for. And we currently pay members of Congress salaries that are not that attractive to skilled people unless they are ideologues, and we pay their staff salaries that are not particularly attractive to anyone at all except as a stepping stone to something else. So you get a very unimaginative, uncreative, ineffective Congress in which the dominant players are moderates who, due to their marginalization in their own party coalitions, are isolated from high-quality outside assistance in analyzing issues.
The result is very low-quality work that frustrates the public and that the members themselves constantly whine about. And all for no good reason. There are 330 million people in the United States creating a GDP of about $21 trillion per year. There’s just no conceivable amount of money that you could spend on the ~600 members of the House and Senate and their staff that would be burdensome to the country. They shouldn’t waste money on nonsense, but they should be able to hire high-quality staffers who they trust to serve as long-term unbiased advisors on both technical and political issues.
America is disinvesting in its legislature
Congressional staff budgets were never super generous, but as Josh McCrain demonstrates, they’ve gotten stingier over the course of my career. The rising inflation-adjusted pay for chiefs of staff that we saw in the earlier chart is interesting, but this is fundamentally not an inflation story — the aggregate Members Representation Allowance has just gone down a lot since 2010.
Democrats spend a bit more of the MRA on staff salaries (you can also use it for constituent mail and some other purposes), but the basic trends are similar because the MRA is falling.
But the real truth is even worse than that because inflation-adjusted median earnings in the economy as a whole are up about 10% since 2005. So economy-wide pay has gone up, but congressional pay and congressional staff budgets have gone down. At the same time, housing costs in the D.C. metro area have risen faster than the national average. We are, in effect, de-professionalizing the legislative staff — making it less attractive for mid-career people to consider working in Congress and less attractive for young congressional staffers to continue working there over time.
You can also see that U.S. House staff budgets are relatively ungenerous in international terms (the Senate doesn’t have fixed staff budgets, and data wasn't available for the Spanish legislature), and American legislator salaries are pretty stingy when you consider that average household income in the U.S. is higher than in all these countries.
What’s more, there are 736 Bundestag members serving Germany’s 83 million people versus 435 House members for 330 million Americans. If you think of the relatively small size of the House relative to our population as an economizing measure, we could easily afford to pay four to five times what Germany does.
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