The House takes a small step to make Congress great again

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Something remarkable happened a week ago: a committee in Congress voted to spend a little bit more money on congressional staff. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., offered the amendment to a spending bill, which was approved overwhelmingly by voice vote.

Cynics in the audience may snort and scoff, “Well, what’s new? Those fat cats are always lining their own pockets!” The view that Congress splurges on staff may be widely held in this country.

The facts are otherwise. Adjusted for inflation, spending by the House of Representatives on staff has declined since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.

House Staff Spending 2001-2014

The cost of living in the D.C. area is sky-high and congressional staff tend to quit the Hill after a couple of years for more lucrative work (often for lobbying firms and interest groups). To pay for this tiny raise, the House did not reach deeper into the public’s pockets. Instead, it chose to defer spending on the upkeep of the Capitol building and grounds.

Each member of the House of Representatives receives a chunk of change to spend on staff. Farr’s amendment raised that amount by 1.5 percent. According to Demand Progress’ Daniel Schuman, this increase amounts to about $18,000 for each congressional office. But don’t get the idea that any staffer is getting rich. The raise will be spread among the 18 staff in each office and will be reduced roughly 25 percent to 35 percent by federal and state payroll taxes. The effect on take-home pay will be tiny, but something beats nothing. Perhaps it will help slow the staff- and brain-drain from Congress.

Democrats supported the Farr pay amendment, but so did staunchly fiscal conservative Republicans. The very conservative Texas Republican John Carter voted for it. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., stood and spoke strongly in favor of it, noting that Congress needs staff to serve constituents and “do our jobs.” Lest anyone imagine Rep. Palazzo is a RINO (“Republican In Name Only”), he’s the same congressman who gave copies of the Bible to his 534 fellow legislators and asked them to draw upon it for guidance in governing. He also scores well on the various conservative voting scorecards.

That conservatives supported the pay measure actually makes perfect sense. Many on the right are very concerned that the massive growth of the executive branch has thrown the separation of powers out of balance. As constitutional literalists, they are aghast that agencies enact laws more often than our national legislature, despite Article I of the Constitution’s declaration that: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

In hopes of reversing the recent diminishment of Congress, conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently have launched movements to re-establish Congress as the first branch of government. (Disclosure: R Street Institute has partnered with New America to study ways to increase legislative capacity.)

The odds are good that the House pay raise will become law. Whether the Senate will follow suit and treat its employees less stingily remains to be seen.

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