Washington is “broken.” Members of Congress are “overpaid and underworked.” A whopping 78 percent of the American public disapproves of lawmakers’ job performances. Thus, like any other group of poorly performing American workers, Congress probably won’t get a raise next year.
Many voters agree with that assessment. Lawmakers already make a hefty six figures and more than three times the U.S. median household income. But although their pay might look rich at first glance, deciding what salary the members of Congress merit is complicated by the political climate—and the potential for legislators to make a whole lot more if they were to work almost anywhere else.
Lawmakers haven’t given themselves a raise in seven years, and they likely won’t see one next year either. The fiscal-year 2017 appropriations package, which Congress is debating right now, would prolong the freeze. Since 2009, when Democrats controlled Congress, lawmakers’ salaries have stayed stagnant at $174,000, and only a few select members make more than that: Both chambers’ majority and minority leaders and the Senate’s president pro tempore each earn $193,400; and the House speaker takes in $223,500.
Keeping the freeze is, no doubt, good politics. It’s no coincidence the freeze began with the U.S. economy in recession. The private sector took a nosedive and so did government: During the downturn, governments at all levels shed jobs when tax revenue dropped, and some local and state governments cut workers’ pay or forced furloughs. But the freeze persisted even as control of Congress changed hands and the economy began to rebound. Conservative lawmakers don’t believe the economy has recovered, and they aren’t wont to praise Washington. It’d be out of character for them to agree to a pay bump, even if they know they can make much more if they leave the Hill. As Roll Call’s David Hawkings reported last year, members’ support for a freeze immediately came with sacrifices:
That meant forgoing a $2,600 cost-of-living increase [the first year], based on a government calculation of wage gains in the private sector. With budget austerity taking hold on the Hill with ever more force, Congress readily turned aside similar COLAs in the five subsequent years, and now lawmakers are getting ready to spurn the $3,000 inflation adjustment calculated for 2016. ...
[W]ith each passing year, their “no” votes of self-denial are becoming more politically obligatory—and more damaging to their own families. (Adjusting for inflation, the buying power of a member’s salary in the coming year will be smaller than at any time in the previous quarter-century.)
But is it all that damaging? Lawmakers’ decision-making is complicated by the fact that many are, well, stinkin’ rich. And there are the optics: Even if congressional salaries were their only source of wealth, members would still make much, much more annually than other Americans, including other government workers. In 2014, the average American made just over $44,000. Federal, state, and local government workers, on average, made more than that, but their earnings were still tens of thousands of dollars lower than legislators’ salaries. The graphic below details how congressional salaries stacked up against the average wages and salaries of local, state, and federal government workers in 2014, the last year data was available from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Federal workers’ pay has changed slightly since 2014; they have received small increases each year after a three-year freeze.