Heard on the Hill
Less than 5 percent of public and private sector employers pay monthly
Posted March 30, 2023 at 7:01am
When money gets low, some House staffers hit up receptions around the District for free food. Others, especially junior staffers, work multiple jobs to get them from one paycheck to the next. Still others run up credit card debt while working in the halls of Congress — whatever it takes to get by.
The low pay on the Hill has been an issue for years. But the infrequency of the paychecks, just one per month, can compound the problem, staffers say.
“There are a lot of times where you hit the middle of the month and you need to pay bills beyond just rent and other kind of first-of-the-month expenses,” said one senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While now in a senior position, it wasn’t long ago he was earning near the minimum threshold — which last year was raised to $45,000 in House offices — and scrounging for things like rent, food and groceries.
The House’s monthly payroll system for members and staff is at odds with the way most Americans are paid, either biweekly (every two weeks) or semimonthly (twice a month). That’s been the reality for decades, experts say, but it soon could be up for review.
‘Over a decadelong push’
Less than 5 percent of public and private sector employers pay monthly, as opposed to 45 percent who pay biweekly and 18 percent who pay semimonthly, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey released in October. The remaining roughly 32 percent of employers pay weekly, the survey found.
“The House is actually in the extreme minority by paying this way. And there has been over a decadelong push to get this revised,” said Taylor J. Swift, a policy adviser with the advocacy group Demand Progress and former House staffer who described the difficulty of budgeting on a monthly paycheck.
The Senate pays workers twice a month.
An effort to change the pay frequency, originating with the House Administration Committee, got a vote on the House floor but fell short in 2009, Swift said. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, or ModCom, which was formed during the 116th Congress in 2019, again raised the issue. One of the panel’s first 10 recommendations was to shift House staff pay to semimonthly.
ModCom’s recommendation spurred the House Chief Administrative Officer — a Legislative Branch agency that provides administrative, technical and operational support to the House — to undertake a review of a potential shift.
“We looked at it about a year or so ago and it was going to be extremely expensive to change our current, older HR payroll system to accommodate that. And I’m talking about millions of dollars more expensive,” CAO Catherine Szpindor told the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee at a hearing in early March. The Modernization Subcommittee is the latest version of ModCom, which disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress.
Szpindor, however, indicated at the hearing that the agency would need to review its payroll system in the near future and that the requirement phase of that process would begin later this year. “Part of that is going to be answering the question about whether we pay monthly or pay biweekly,” Szpindor told the subcommittee.
A spokesperson for the agency noted, though, that it could be several years before a change is implemented.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., chaired the select committee that recommended changing to semimonthly staff pay. Kilmer is now back as ranking member of the Modernization Subcommittee, and he said there are several ways to implement the change.
“The easiest way to do it is through Legislative Branch appropriations — by just providing the funds to make it happen,” Kilmer said recently in an interview with Roll Call. “Or by saying, within the funds provided to the CAO, go do this.”
The CAO could also draw from the Legislative Branch’s modernization account, which sets aside cash to advance modernization initiatives, Kilmer said.
But any conversation about investing in a payroll overhaul lands in the middle of the House Republican majority’s push for austerity. The House Freedom Caucus in March released a plan to cap discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels, a plan to which Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed in principle while courting GOP members in pursuit of the gavel. Other prominent Republicans, like Texas Rep. Jodey C. Arrington, who chairs the House Budget Committee, have also promoted a budget roll back to fiscal 2022 levels.
Demand Progress and a bipartisan group of 24 other individuals, groups and think tanks warned against proposed Republican cuts to the Legislative Branch budget in a March letter, specifically decrying any cuts to staff pay. But Republican fervor for budget cuts dims the potential for a multimillion-dollar change to improve staff pay.
Money aside, there remains the question of whether House staff truly support a shift toward smaller, more frequent paychecks.
Modernization Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., said she’s spoken to staff in her office who aren’t enthusiastic about the semimonthly model.
“I think the concern is that if you were to split payments into bimonthly, for those folks that have a rent payment on the first of the month, that may be a little more challenging or eat up a significant portion of that first check,” Bice said in an interview.
Those opposed to the change may be in the minority. According to a September 2019 staff survey administered by the CAO and obtained by Roll Call, a little more than 68 percent of 4,970 respondents said they preferred the shift to more frequent pay. Most of those respondents made between $40,000 and $80,000 and had worked in the House for more than five years.
Those results are dated, but several staff groups echoed the findings, though they said it should be paired with additional salary increases.
“We’ve heard a strong preference for bi-weekly pay, especially from more junior level staffers,” Zoe Bluffstone, press steward for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, said in a statement. “However, the overarching problem still remains that compensation for congressional staff is so often far too low to meet basic bills.”
“Congress needs to increase pay for staff, especially for those compensated at the lowest levels, and they should also pay them biweekly to give staff more breathing room with finances, emergencies and more,” Ruby Robles, president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, said in a separate statement.
Paying staffers monthly also prevents more diverse candidates from working on the Hill, as those without some financial cushion might shy away from Congress, the Democratic aide said.
“As conversations continue about trying to make the Hill more accessible to people of color, to minority groups, to marginalized groups, putting us on par with the private sector or even other places in the federal government would probably open up a lot of doors for people who otherwise couldn’t work here,” the aide said.