House Democratic leaders kill congressional pay raise in spending bill

Andrew Harnik | AP
Andrew Harnik | AP
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is visible as cherry blossom trees bloom on the West Lawn in Washington, March 30, 2019.
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The bill as filed would restore a cost-of-living increase that was suspended amid a recession-battered economy. But lawmakers in both parties publicly erupted over the issue.
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WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders have decided to withdraw part of a massive federal spending bill set for a vote later this week after an uproar over whether members of Congress might see their first pay raise in a decade.

The bill as filed would restore a cost-of-living increase that was suspended amid a recession-battered economy. But lawmakers in both parties, sensitive to the optics of voting to raise their own pay from $174,000, publicly erupted over the issue.

“We are delaying consideration of the legislative branch appropriations bill while we continue to discuss the issue of the cost-of-living adjustment,” said Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.

Other portions of the bill, including funding for the military and for health and human services programs, will move forward.

The move is a setback for Hoyer, who advocated restoring the automatic increase, arguing that a rising cost of living in Washington has strained the finances of lawmakers, especially those who are not independently wealthy.

The issue was hotly debated in a House leadership meeting Monday night, aides said, with Hoyer arguing to push forward with the bill while others said the move was politically unwise.

The issue could be revisited in another spending bill later this month, the senior aide said.

Among those most vocally opposing the pay hike were scores of Democratic freshmen. Several sponsored or co-sponsored floor amendments to ensure that lawmakers would not see a raise.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-New York, said Monday that lawmakers were prepared to vote against the overall bill, funding scores of federal agencies, if the pay hike were included.

“Whether you want to call it a COLA [cost-of-living adjustment], whether you want to call it a pay increase, whatever it is, that’s not something Congress should be focusing on right now,” he said. “We have other things we gotta work on.”

Aside from Hoyer, the biggest proponent of the pay raise has been a newcomer: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, the 29-year-old rising liberal star who has made income inequality a key issue.

After Hoyer pulled the pay-raise issue Monday evening, Ocasio-Cortez said she understood the optics but called it “shortsighted” because the frozen-salary structure on Capitol Hill created too many incentives for members and staffers to leave for greener pastures at lobbying firms.

“It may not be politically popular to say but honestly this is why there’s so much pressure to turn to lobbying firms and to cash in on members’ service after people leave,” she said.

Monday’s blowup followed private bipartisan discussions about trying to minimize the political blowback from a congressional pay hike, with Democratic and Republican leaders quietly agreeing to hold their fire to help out their rank-and-file members. Some leaders have also argued that it is a staff retention measure, because salaries for congressional aides cannot exceed those of lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, declined to comment Monday on Democrats’ decision to pull the legislative-branch funding bill but defended the need for a pay increase.

“There hasn’t been a COLA in 10 years,” he said. “I think all federal employees should be treated equally.”

Lawmakers passed a 1.9 percent across-the-board pay raise for federal workers, not including members of Congress, earlier this year. The cost-of-living adjustment, if adopted, would’ve add about $4,500 to lawmakers’ yearly paychecks — roughly a 2.6 percent raise.

Washington Post writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

 



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