If you worked for a couple of years on the Hill beginning in 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency and the dawn of the second Bush White House, then came back this year in the same position, you would probably see a 35 percent pay hike.
That conclusion is based on Legistorm’s calculation of annual increases in the median staff salary for members of the office staff of a senator or representative. It was $39,673 in 2000 and is presently $53,660, a 35 percent increase.
That’s the good news. Pay for congressional staff has risen steadily during the previous two decades. Unfortunately, it’s still common for lower level staffers to be paid salaries that require having roommates to share housing costs, or other income sources (which should be disclosed).
Even so, a 35 percent pay raise is a good thing. The problem is other factors went up even more over the same period, according to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The median household income in 2000 was $42,148, according to the Census Bureau. The same figure for 2019, the most recent available year, was $63,688. That’s a 51 percent increase, but Hill aides tend to be single or in the first decade of marriage, thus with lower household incomes.
Here’s another way to look at it: Census reported the average price of a new home in 2000 was $194,800. The same figure is January 2020 was $297,704, a 53 percent increase. And Washington is one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets, too.
“Everything here is expensive. Declining purchasing power leads many staffers to quit Congress to join lobbying shops and the executive branch, both of which pay better.”
Or consider the BLS’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) Inflation Calculator, which tells us that we need more than $38 to buy today what $25 bought in 2000, a 52 percent increase.
Kevin Kosar, a Hill veteran who is now vice president for research partnerships at the R Street Institute, sees little change in the obstacles faced by congressional staff.
“Is it any wonder that staff turnover is high? A studio apartment in the dodgy parts of town will run $1500 or more a month; if someone in their 20s can afford a car, it costs as much as $2,000 a year to insure,” Kosar said.
“Everything here is expensive. Declining purchasing power leads many staffers to quit Congress to join lobbying shops and the executive branch, both of which pay better,” he continued.
The turnover means institutional memory and the knowledge and experience that come with tenure in a position are often lacking on congressional staffs. That’s not good for the elected officials, the staffers or, most importantly, the taxpayers.
“The more you work at anything, the better you get at it. This holds true for being a congressional staffer. This is why staff turnover is bad for voters, it means we get less effective and less competent representation,” Kosar explained.
And if you have ever answered incoming calls in a congressional shop, you know the challenges that come with getting an earful from an angry caller.
“The life of a staffer is anything but cushy. You can be fired at the drop of a hat. You have little if any control over your schedule. If your member loses reelection, you lose your job. Oh, and voters and everybody else wants something from you but regularly trashes your employer, Congress.”