WASHINGTON — A little-noticed rule change made quietly by Democrats in the final days of their majority last year could give House members a long-delayed increase in compensation, allowing them to be reimbursed for the cost of lodging, food and travel while they are on official business in Washington.
For the past dozen years, House members have declined to take a cost-of-living increase in the annual spending bills, fearful of a political backlash if they were seen to give themselves a raise. But the provision, tucked into internal rules that typically receive little attention from the public and without any open debate on Capitol Hill, could amount to a subsidy of about $34,000 per member this year. That would be a substantial increase for lawmakers who spend weeks on end in the nation’s capital, where living costs are among the highest in the United States.
The new rule, proposed by Democrats on the House Administration Committee, was approved with no objection in December, but rank-and-file members were not informed widely about it until Tuesday. In an email sent by the chief administrative officer of the House, which was obtained by The New York Times and reported earlier by Bloomberg News, congressional offices were advised not to submit reimbursement requests for rental and housing costs until the committee issued additional guidance.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who led the Administration Committee when the change was made, did not respond to requests for comment about it, nor did the other Democratic members of the panel.
But some Republicans were quick to criticize it.
“You can have a good public policy debate on whether congressmen should be paid more in order to attract a better bunch, and you could have a reasonable debate on inflation adjustments, but it really ought to be done in public,” said former Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama. “That’s my biggest beef, that it was a clandestine secret.”
A Divided Congress
After a dayslong spectacle over the House speakership, the 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
- Abortion: As part of an anti-abortion rights effort, House Republicans pushed through a bill that could subject doctors who perform abortions to criminal penalties.
- I.R.S. Funds: Republicans in the House voted to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service, as conservative lawmakers try to kneecap President Biden’s $80 billion overhaul of the agency.
- A Wide-Ranging Inquiry: The House approved the creation of a powerful new committee to scrutinize what Republicans say is the “weaponization” of government against conservatives.
While rank-and-file members make $174,000 a year, well above the median salary in the United States, many of them maintain residences both in their districts and in Washington. The increase in compensation is aimed at helping them defray the costs of a secondary residence. Lawmakers, especially younger ones, have voiced concern about being able to afford to live in Washington, where they spend about a third of the year. Some members have opted to share apartments or sleep in their offices.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recommended the additional reimbursement in its final report released in December, arguing that it would increase the pool of people who could afford to serve on Capitol Hill.
“Unlike their counterparts in the executive branch and private sector, members do not receive a per diem or reimbursement for their out-of-pocket living expenses when they are at work in Washington,” the report said.
Reimbursement amounts for lawmakers are capped by a daily limit set by the General Services Administration, according to a handbook created by the Administration Committee.
Using the rates set for the 2023 fiscal year, which ends in September, and estimates based on last year’s rates for October through December, individual members could be reimbursed a maximum of about $34,000 this year. Collectively, if all 440 current members and delegates requested the maximum amount, the reimbursements would total about $15.1 million.
The earlier version of the internal handbook allowed members to be reimbursed for travel and lodging fees for official business, but did not specify that it could apply to expenses incurred while in Washington.
A major spending measure enacted in December added more than $35 million to members’ office budgets to “retain talented staff and provide a ‘living wage,’” according to a summary of the legislation from Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
But the extra reimbursements for members would come out of the same pot of funds, raising concern among some aides who long have complained of being underpaid that the change could leave them with fewer resources.
“Too many congressional staffers live paycheck to paycheck, take on debt, or work second jobs in order to survive due to persistently low wages on the Hill,” said Zoe Bluffstone, a House Democratic staff member and spokeswoman for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association. “It’s already not sustainable for so many, but if more of the office budget gets siphoned away, we could see cuts in staff pay and even greater increases in turnover, which hurts the institution of Congress as a whole.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.