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Making It Easier for the Less Wealthy to Serve in Congress

With a new reimbursement policy, maybe fewer members of Congress will have to sleep in their offices.
May 4, 2023
Making It Easier for the Less Wealthy to Serve in Congress

Gregg Harper quit his government job because he couldn’t afford to provide for his adult son, who has Fragile X Syndrome. In an unusual twist, he was a member of Congress. In fact, all members of Congress have seen their effective paycheck shrink over the years. Members of Congress are often thought of as wealthy—and many of them are. But scores of them have an average net worth below that of the median American household of $121,700. According to OpenSecrets, Harper’s last reported net worth was in the negative by $365,001.

It is hard for people of modest backgrounds to afford to serve in Congress. Washington, D.C.’s housing and food expenses are among the highest in the country. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first arrived in 2018, she couldn’t afford an apartment because she wasn’t wealthy, hadn’t yet received a paycheck, and, as required by law, maintained a residence back in New York. Rep. Maxwell Frost, who started his freshman term in January, was denied an apartment because he had bad credit. While both these representatives did manage to obtain their own housing, nearly one hundred members of Congress sleep in their offices.

The cost of housing in Washington is 144 percent higher than the national average. By cost of living, Washington is currently the fifth most expensive city in the country, with the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom at $2,771. It can be much more. And because members of Congress must also maintain a residence in their home states, they are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars each year that they otherwise would not spend.

Fortunately, thanks to a new policy, House members will no longer have to pay out of pocket for food and lodging when they are at work in the nation’s capital. Instead they will be eligible for a per diem reimbursement for the days the House is in session, with funds drawn from their office accounts. This means that more people, not just the rich, can afford to serve in Congress.

This welcome change, adopted on a bipartisan basis by the Committee on House Administration, provides elected representatives with a travel reimbursement policy similar to that available to all federal employees.

There are other precedents for this sort of arrangement: Many state legislatures also use a mix of salary, travel reimbursement, and per diem to compensate legislators. And in the nation’s early days, members of Congress were paid per diem plus a set salary. The first Congress set member salaries at $6 per day plus travel expenses.

In the modern era, members of Congress are paid a rate set by law, $174,000, which has not changed since 2009. Had that number been adjusted for inflation, it would be nearly $248,000 today. Not only must they cover many of their own expenses, such as food and lodging, but Congress sunset the tax deduction for member living expenses in 2017.

The new policy isn’t perfect. Members of Congress should receive regular cost of living adjustments. Per diem reimbursements should be drawn from a separate account and not reduce their office funds, which also pay staff salaries. They shouldn’t pay taxes on reimbursements. But we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Moreover, providing per diem reimbursements isn’t just good for members, it’s good for the public. As the House Modernization Committee explained in its final report, more candidates from a wider variety of backgrounds are more willing to run for office if they see public service as an economically viable career. This change should be viewed as one step in reducing the financial burden associated with public service that broadens who can participate and should be the starting point for other reforms.

This policy isn’t just about adjusting the salaries of members of Congress. It’s about treating members of Congress like every other type of worker by allowing them to make use of a commonly used worker-centered reimbursement policy. People’s labor has value and everyone, even members of Congress, should be treated fairly. No one should be forced by economic circumstances to live in their office. And no one should be forced to subsidize public service out of their pocketbook.

Too often we forget that members of Congress, and their staff, are people too. They face many of the same home life and personal challenges that the rest of us do. We should strive to create policies that honor that sentiment while also ensuring that such policies are transparent, promote accountability, and help build trust between lawmakers and the public.

John D. Rackey and Daniel Schuman

John D. Rackey is director of legislative studies at the Sunwater Institute. (Twitter: @JDRackey.) Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress. (Twitter: @danielschuman.)