The Democratic Party says it’s the party of the working class, but congressional Democrats this week complicated that pitch by calling for a pay raise for members of Congress.
“Members deserve to be paid, staff deserves to be paid and the cost of living here is causing serious problems for people who are not wealthy to serve in this institution,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings during a Monday Rules Committee hearing on the upcoming year’s legislative branch appropriations bill, according to Roll Call.
The number two House Democrat told reporters he agreed with Hastings.
Rep Steny Hoyer said it was appropriate during the recession years in 2009 and 2010 to not approve any pay increases, but to continue that policy “simply will dictate that the only people who can serve are the rich and I don’t think that’s what the founding fathers had in mind.”
Members of Congress are paid $174,000 annually, and haven’t enjoyed a pay raise since 2009. Staffers are paid considerably less, with the average staff assistant on the Hill earning roughly $35,000 per year.
That creates a barrier to entry into Congress for low-income Americans, and contributes to a brain drain that’s made it difficult for congressional offices to recruit and retain top talent, Hastings argued.
“This institution is heading towards elitism,” Hastings said on Monday. “And that’s crazy.”
Members feel “that on the salary that they make, they’re going to be unable to send their children to college,” he added.
The Florida Democrat said the high cost of living in D.C. — according to USA Today, a D.C. resident would need to earn $108,000 annually to live comfortably — makes it impossible for Americans of modest means to serve in Congress, and is causing increasing numbers to forego renting apartments in the city for sleeping in their offices while they’re in town.
The House is voting on Tuesday on the annual spending bill that allocates the budget for legislative branch, and it includes a provision to block an automatic pay hike.
Hoyer noted that most companies allow for cost-of-living adjustments for employees to keep up with expenses, which he said was “not a raise, but a staying even.” Neither, notably, made the case for a performance-based pay raise, which would likely be long coming if Congress maintains its historically low approval ratings.
It’s an annual refrain from lawmakers, who indeed do face steeper costs having to maintain, in many cases, two homes. And Hastings may have a point about the payscale precluding middle- and lower-class Americans from serving — according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the median net worth for a member of Congress in 2013 was over $1 million, and a majority of members are millionaires.
In contrast, an American household’s median net worth was estimated at $56,355 in a 2014 study.
Hastings himself is the second-poorest member of Congress, per CRP, with an estimated net worth of negative $2.23 million. But the personal story he used to illustrate his pitch is unlikely to win many Americans over. He described his experience renting a $2,100 apartment in a modern condo building in Northeast D.C. that eventually became too expensive for him.
A one-bedroom apartment in that building, Senate Square, can cost as much as $2,300 according to its website.
CNN’s Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.