Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading calls to raise wages for congressional staffers, a crucial step, she said, to retaining the “talented and diverse workforce” the House needs to serve the public.
Ocasio-Cortez made the appeal in a letter signed by more than 100 of her House colleagues, asking the House Appropriations Committee to allocate more funds in the budget for this purpose.
“For years, pay and benefits for the staff of Member offices, leadership offices, and committees have fallen farther and farther behind what is offered in the private sector,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in the letter, addressed to Rosa DeLauro, the committee’s chairwoman. “At the same time, the cost of living here in our nation’s capital has risen substantially, placing opportunities such as homeownership, rental housing, and childcare out of reach for many.”
Ocasio-Cortez has attempted to address this problem in her own office: At the beginning of her first term, she announced a base salary of $52,000 for entry-level staffers and capped senior-level staffers at $80,000 to close what is typically an enormous gap between the two groups. She also pledged to pay interns $15 an hour when, at the time, the vast majority of Congress did not pay interns at all.
But even in Ocasio-Cortez’s office, which pays some of the highest wages on the Hill, some staffers have struggled to make ends meet. On Monday, Dan Riffle, former senior counsel and policy adviser to Ocasio-Cortez, said he had to leave his job a couple of months ago to find higher wages elsewhere.
“She’s a great boss and I adored my colleagues, but with two kids in daycare I just couldn’t afford the job,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s not just that the Hill pays less than K street. It’s less than non-profit or local gov’t.”
Of course no structural problem can be solved by a single member of Congress—hence the letter requesting a 21 percent increase in the congressional office budget to raise wages across the board.
Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues are also right to link low wages with a persistent lack of diversity on the Hill. Even though this current Congress is the most diverse yet, its staffers remain overwhelmingly white, failing to reflect the constituencies they serve.
“It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid, overworked staff just because some conservatives want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility,’” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “The lack of diversity on the Hill can be traced directly to our failure to pay staff a living wage.”