Low wages lead younger Congressional staffers to burn out fast

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Exciting as it might seem to join the staff of Congress as a young person, disillusion sometimes sets in fast. One reason, according to Michael Beckel, is low pay. For details of Congressional pay research, the research director at a think tank called Issue One spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:
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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Exciting as it might seem to join the staff of Congress as a young person, disillusion sometimes sets in fast. One reason, according to Michael Beckel, is low pay. For details of Congressional pay research, the research director at a think tank called Issue One spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Beckel, good to have you on.

Michael Beckel: Thanks so much for having me, Tom.

Tom Temin: So what have you learned about congressional pay levels, and how did you learn it?

Michael Beckel: Issue one recently published a new report that underscores how, especially in entry level positions, congressional staff are widely and consistently underpaid. We took data from a group called LegiStorm, which analyzes all congressional staff pay information, and they’ve been doing it for years. And we looked at all DC-based congressional staffers, and found that one in eight congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. is not paid a living wage. And that includes 70% of staff assistants, which are the most common entry level positions in every member’s office on Capitol Hill.

Tom Temin: And what does that translate into into dollars? What is a non-living wage, in that is to say they have to work on Capitol Hill for the most part of their D.C. base,

Michael Beckel: Right, the living wage is a concept that a lot of folks may be familiar with. The researchers at MIT have estimated that a living wage in Washington, D.C. is about $42,600. That is a baseline. You know, this is not the most comfortable of wages, this isn’t saying that you’re going to be able to take luxurious vacations every year or save for retirement. This is what they — researchers at MIT — estimate. It’s a quote unquote, minimum subsistence wage for an adult with no children in the nation’s capital.

Tom Temin: Yeah, you can’t even swing in efficiency in pet-worth on that type of salary. And so 70% of the entry level staff is at this level, or 70% of the staff is at that level or below?

Michael Beckel: 70% of staff assistants. So this is one of the most common entry level positions, almost every office has one. And this really means that for far too many people, entry level jobs working on Capitol Hill in a city as expensive as Washington, D.C. are simply not an option. But low pay and high cost of living means individuals from more affluent families are more likely to be working in these roles and relying on financial help from their families.

Tom Temin: And if they don’t earn $42,600, what do they earn?

Michael Beckel: The positions vary. The most common wage, the median wage for folks in the staff assistant role in 2020 was about $38,700. There’s also other entry level positions that don’t see salaries that much higher, such as a press assistant, which was $43,900, or a legislative correspondent, which was just $44,000 in 2020. So these are some of the most common entry level positions in staff. These are the folks who are helping schedule meetings, dealing with constituents, doing the research to help drive the legislative process forward, managing messages between different members of Congress’s office. And it is just a very difficult financial position to be in for a lot of young entry level folks. And I think one of the other major findings that we had in this report is just how bottom weighted the staff on Capitol Hill are. 60% of congressional staff are under the age of 35, and 45% of the staffers in 2020 made less than $60,000. So Congress needs to raise its pay floor for its junior staff, to be able to better attract and retain employees from all walks of life.

Tom Temin: By my calculation, then, if you make $15 an hour — the minimum wage, I believe, is what it is right now in and around D.C. That’s $30,000, so they’re really not making substantially more than they could at fast food chains.

Michael Beckel: Exactly. A lot of positions, especially in the moment in history that we’re in right now, are doing a lot to try to attract people and pay competitive wages. And Congress could do a lot more to really step up and make sure that it is offering competitive wages, especially for entry level folks who are dedicated to serving the public interest, who want to do more to make government work, and to be able to have the opportunity to come to the nation’s capitol to serve a member of Congress. Even in one of these unglamorous roles, you know, it’s hard to be scraping by on the paychecks that they’re getting.

Tom Temin: Yeah, sure, it’s not fast food, but they do get to see how the sausage is made. We’re speaking with Michael Bekele. He’s the research director at Issue One. Alright, so this is not an unknown thing to Congress itself. What do you propose?

Michael Beckel: Well, Congress would have the opportunity to invest more in itself, to invest more in its staff. Just like any company, you know, any organization, you get what you pay for. So really, Congress needs to invest in itself, including its staff, in order to ensure that it is attracting the best people and paying competitive wages. And every office has a budget, every office gets to set that budget, and if Congress were to be able to steer more money into the office budgets — they’re called MRAs in the vernacular on Capitol Hill. And these are the bank accounts that members get to set their pay, so more money for members could translate into more money for their staff and their junior staff. And far too often, we see members of Congress trying to make political points in their rhetoric about how frugal they are in their spending. And really, if they’re not spending the money that’s allocated for their staff budget, they’re hurting themselves, they’re hurting their constituents, they’re hurting their ability to be as responsive as they can be. And that is money that they should be investing in the infrastructure of their offices.

Tom Temin: You mentioned earlier, too, that these types of jobs therefore tend to attract children of affluent families, who I guess the presumption is, subsidizes them while they’re there in Capitol Hill. Do we have any data that suggests that? Do we know the demographic makeup of the staff assistants and press aides and so forth?

Michael Beckel: Well, certainly we know that across the board, the racial diversity on Capitol Hill and socioeconomic diversity on Capitol Hill do not match that of the country writ large. There was a study done by a group called the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies recently that found that Latinos account for 18.5% of the US population, but just 3.8% of top staffers in Senate member offices. Meanwhile, Black Americans, who represent about 13.4% of the population, accounted for only 3.1% of top positions in Senate member offices. So I think both parties under-employ staffers of color at high level and entry level positions. And the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also found that three quarters of House members have no top staff of color in their offices.

Tom Temin: And by the way, top staff members — the senior people, the chiefs of staff and so on —how much can they earn at the top scales?

Michael Beckel: At the top end of the spectrum, this has also been part of the conversation of late that in August of last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a move that would increase the maximum salary that House staffers could make. So this decision would increase the top bracket from $174,000 to about $199,000. So this is a step that decouples staff pay from the pay given to members of Congress themselves. For years and years and years, those two things had been in lockstep, so that no staffer would earn more than their boss, the member of Congress. But really, at all levels of congressional staff, people know that they can enter the private sector. They can go to K Street, they can take a lobbying job and earn far more than they can on Capitol Hill. And being able to boost staff pay up and down the ladder in every office is a way for Congress to attract good people to continue to work for their offices, to retain that institutional memory, retain that institutional knowledge, help things run smoothly so members don’t have to spend so much time training new staff on a recurring basis. And that way, you’re really trying to effectively serve your constituents.

Tom Temin: I guess anything that makes Congress work better would be a good thing. Michael Beckel is research director at Issue one. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michael Beckel: Thanks again for having us on.

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