Budget Outlook
House leaders hoped to approve a cost-of-living increase for members but Senator Chuck Schumer rejected the idea. Matt Slocum/AP

Many Lawmakers Want a Raise. Politics Makes That Impossible.

“There’s a general belief that if we heap enough pain on ourselves, eventually the American people will like us. … That’s not going to happen.”

The House of Representatives has a big talent-retention problem, and simply paying lawmakers more money could help.

But for the 15th year in a row, members of Congress aren’t giving themselves a raise. Some members say even a small cost-of-living salary increase risks too much political blowback.

There’s an argument lawmakers don’t really deserve a raise anyway: This has been one of the least productive Congresses in decades and will likely be remembered for the House’s public, bumbling incompetence after the historic ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Members imagine a salary bump would go over poorly with voters, who already have a low opinion of Congress, and many of them would rather have wage stagnation than be kicked out of their seats.

“There’s a general belief that if we heap enough pain on ourselves, eventually the American people will like us,” Rep. Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican who wants to see a cost-of-living increase go into effect, told NOTUS. “That’s not going to happen. It’s never been that way since the founding. We are set up to take the scorn and abuse of the people. That’s what we’re here for. So trying to change that is probably a fool’s errand.”

Seeing little hope of his colleagues changing their minds, Crawford is challenging “unconstitutional suppression” of lawmakers’ wages in a new class-action lawsuit with former members from both parties. In an interview, he pointed out several reasons to increase pay. First, it’s a tough job to begin with. Second, “We want to make sure that working-class folks get an opportunity to serve and that voters get to choose from a pool of their peers, not just a whole lot of rich people,” he said. “Nothing against rich people — I’d like to be one, but I’m not.”

Lawmakers work long hours, contend with annoying colleagues and irate constituents daily, struggle to have much say in a leadership-driven chamber and frequently travel far from their families. Young, up-and-coming members are making for the exits this year, eyeing more lucrative (or simply less stressful) gigs outside of Congress.

After watching those departures and hearing from frustrated members, House leaders hoped to approve the cost-of-living increase: A source familiar with this week’s spending talks told NOTUS that House Speaker Mike Johnson and Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries both wanted to include a slight pay bump in the $1.2 trillion spending package Congress is considering this week, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rejected the idea. Roll Call first reported the disagreement.

Schumer ignored a question from NOTUS about his stance as he walked to a lunch meeting on Thursday, and a spokesperson for Schumer didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment, nor did spokespeople for Johnson and Jeffries.

House members might appreciate any pay raise more than senators, who are generally older and have accumulated more wealth from life before entering the Senate. The makeup of the House is typically younger — with more parents of young children — and lawmakers tend not to have as much money coming into the gig (though there are notable exceptions).

“It could put you in a tight situation,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat and the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress. “I’m not complaining. I’m making more money than I’ve ever made,” he told NOTUS, but the job itself is expensive.

“You get here and you start paying your bills and you realize, oh, it’s a lot of money that you have to pay. You essentially double your life up here,” he added. “Rent, all your utilities, suits. It’s all these little things that you don’t think about that really add up.”

Frost supports not only a cost-of-living adjustment for lawmakers but also an increase in the funds allocated for running their offices so members can pay staff more.

The proposed adjustment would amount to a 4.6%, or $8,000, increase to members’ standard annual salary of $174,000. The last pay increase came in 2009, although lawmakers can make more if they rise in the ranks to top leadership positions. (Speaker Johnson now makes $224,500.)

Democrats have clashed in the past over this debate, with vulnerable members arguing a pay raise would create such fallout at home that they could lose their seats. Republican opponents, too, know many of their voters despise government spending in general and would rather pay lawmakers nothing at all. Those concerns show no signs of easing, although members have tried to tiptoe around them by increasing pay ceilings for staff in recent years.

Crawford said lawmakers who don’t want a pay raise could simply decline it rather than block raises for members who say they need it (absent a new statute passed, members are required to take a salary, but they are allowed to donate it, and some have opted in the past to pay down the national debt).

Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican who is retiring this year, said lawmakers know what they’re getting into. “The pay is what it is,” he told NOTUS. “We each volunteer or put our names out there every two years. So literally, it’s take it or leave it.”

“Everybody always wants more money,” he said of his colleagues who want the raise. “We’ve got a $32 trillion debt. No one’s really interested in raising the pay of congressmen right now.”

Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Washington Democrat, argued that lawmakers shouldn’t be insulated from their constituents’ challenges. “It’s really important that you, as an elected, are experiencing the same friction that is normal in your community,” she said. “It’s important that members of Congress pay attention to gas prices in their neighborhood and, like, their groceries.”

Keeping wages as they are, she added, helps Congress look more like America.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, disagrees: “It’s important that we’re able to attract the best and the brightest to represent the people,” he told NOTUS. Stagnant wages don’t help with that, and they can bar people who aren’t already wealthy from even thinking about running for office. “We need to make sure that this does not become an institution only for the wealthy,” he said.

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Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, acknowledged that dynamic and said, “If somebody wanted to propose a salary increase, I wouldn’t block it.” But there’s “huge political pressure not to increase.”

It’s not clear what — if anything — could change that.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, whose publicly available net worth is over $1 million, offered his own advice for House members: “Why don’t you stop trading stock, and why don’t you show the public that you’re willing to focus and do your job?” he said. “Maybe that would help your case.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to show lawmakers must take a salary.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. Casey Murray and Claire Heddles are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.