Congress realizes its staff retention issues after Covid, bomb threats and riots

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“I have friends who do really valuable work, who do good for the world, and they have pretty regular schedules. And they don’t think about dying on the job, or what they would do if something happened, ”said a House aide, who spoke candidly about workplace morale on condition of anonymity.

Just last month, President Nancy Pelosi announced that she was increasing the salary cap for senior House assistants to $ 199,300, officially decoupling staff salaries from members salaries and allowing a certain level of assistants earn more than their elected bosses. But entry-level and mid-level assistants fear that this step will only benefit the best members of staff, without the salary increases impacting their levels.

While some Hill staff have called the salary cap hike a positive step, others have warned that without a corresponding increase in overall legislator budgets, highly paid collaborators could use their authority to grant themselves increases anyway. leaving behind less experienced colleagues. And these concerns have a powerful ally in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

“If we want to increase the top wages, we also need to budget the dollars to do it and the dollars to see an increase also in the middle,” Hoyer told POLITICO. “We have to be able to keep those who are the best of them, and therefore, we must not only raise the ceiling as the speaker did, but we must also increase the dollars available to pay salaries. . ”

Despite the frustration over raising the salary cap in the absence of further reforms – “It looked like a slap in the face,” a mid-level Democratic aide said – there is hope lawmakers will finally be ready to tackle the entrenched personnel issues in Congress. More than a dozen House staff, most of whom spoke to POLITICO about pay and benefits on the Hill on condition of anonymity, agreed that staff retention is finally starting to attract serious attention. Warning.

Some House leadership offices have increased the minimum wages they pay following the announcement of Pelosi’s salary cap, according to a senior Democratic official.

Part of the credit, beyond leadership, goes to Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Chairman of the Special Committee on Modernization of Congress. Kilmer, whose panel recommended raising the salary cap, worked to build a bipartisan consensus on workplace improvements in an otherwise bitterly divided Capitol.

“It is recognized that the massive turnover in Congress is eroding the ability of Congress to solve difficult problems,” he said in an interview.

The slowing down of this turnover can start by increasing the ceiling. Seasoned political assistants with years of congressional expertise often leave to take up positions in the private sector or in the executive branch due to large salary increases, and to recruit top talent from on the Hill or from outside the Hill. Washington usually means asking experts to make massive pay cuts. Meanwhile, many entry-level and mid-level employees – struggling with Washington’s high cost of living – cannot afford to stay on the Hill to develop their expertise and instead choose to leave.

Lawmakers from both parties and both houses have refused to enact pay hikes or cost-of-living increases for themselves since 2009. The speaker earns $ 223,500, while majority and minority leaders earn $ 193,400. Since staff salaries were tied to these numbers, the amount staff could earn eroded by 15% in real dollars from 2001 to 2020.

“If you just look at the purchasing power of these staff members, it has fallen by almost $ 35,000 over the past 16 or 17 years just in terms of actual purchasing power,” Kilmer said.

While key assistants may have lost that income, $ 35,000 is still more than what many entry-level employees earn each year.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) made waves on the Hill in 2019 by setting the compensation floor for her staff at $ 52,000 per year, an unprecedented amount for entry-level assistants in other people’s offices members. Despite making headlines for her policy and having a below average staff turnover rate, Ocasio-Cortez said her colleagues had not reached out to her on how to implement something. similar in their offices.

“I don’t really think anyone asked me how we were able to accomplish this, which is a little disappointing,” she said in an interview. “Our compensation is not just about attracting talent, but at the junior level. When someone doesn’t have to work a second job, they can bring their full potential and energy and focus on it.

Amazed that some of her fellow lawmakers “honestly opposed” a recent move to increase their own office budgets, she added, “What do they think $ 35,000 gets you in terms of living in Washington? ?

These office budgets – known as the Members’ Representation Allowance or MRAs – represent a limited pool for lawmakers to pay staff salaries and manage their operations. The accounts pay for member travel, office supplies, technology and constituents’ mailings.

The House passed a 2022 supply bill that includes a $ 134 million increase for MRAs and a $ 34 million increase for committee operations. But with an ongoing resolution slated for later this month, those increases likely won’t pass until a separate government funding bill is passed. Democratic leaders are confident they will be able to come up with a bill with these funding increases later this year.

The issue of personal safety amid repeated threats to the security of Congress, however, is distinct from staff compensation. Hill’s assistants were once again confronted with a dangerous incident on campus last month, texting loved ones in the midst of an hour-long standoff with a man threatening to detonate bombs. The threat abated without causing any injuries, but it wreaked havoc on staff, made worse by the deadly January 6 attack and the tragic vehicle assault in April that killed the officer in Capitol Police Billy Evans and injured a colleague.

Many of those who work at the resort say they can’t get rid of the anxiety that’s now a part of life in Congress.

“I don’t know how much I still have in me,” said a House aide in an interview conducted from his office evacuation site.

Staff said this year was different, even compared to other times of heightened fear, such as the aftermath of the congressional baseball practice shootout in 2017 that injured House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. Some are resigned to the idea that violence has become a permanent feature of American politics, adding to the emotional drain caused by the inherent partisan nature of work – which money cannot fix.

“On some level, money is a factor,” said a nearly 20-year Hill veteran who described himself as “shunning” Congress for the private sector in 2012. “But so does even the enormous workload and stress and the psychological toll. to live in a zero-sum world.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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