House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer ledthe charge this week in pushing the first pay raise for members of Congress in a decade. But now he’s paying for it.
The second-highest ranking House Democrat is taking fire from across the caucus after trying to enact the salary hike, a move some vulnerable Democrats fretted would be politically disastrous and could even cost them their seats next year.
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Hoyer is now waging war on multiple fronts — an ugly public relations battle, a fraught fight with Republicans, and fierce criticism within his own party, including some close allies — in effort to give lawmakers a cost-of-living boost.
In the broader caucus, the majority of Democrats are on board with Hoyer, arguing that congressional salaries for lawmakers and staff have failed to keep pace with skyrocketing costs of housing in the Washington area, as well as back home. But many members are reluctant to speak up, privately complaining the attack ad basically writes itself.
In a closed-door meeting Monday night, Hoyer fended off members of his own leadership team in a testy exchange. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who leads the Democratic Caucus’ messaging arm, said he would vote against the pay hike on the floor. But Hoyer pushed back, telling Cicilline that his spot at the leadership table sometimes required taking tough votes, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation.
Cicilline, who was one of several members in the room who voiced concerns,declined to comment on the meeting and would not say whether he backed the cost of living increase for members: “I’m not going to discuss what we said in the leadership meeting.”
The perennially contentious issue is causing a split in the caucus, pitting many battleground freshmen against long-time Democrats who say they’re fighting for fair pay for their staff.
“I do not pay attention to the frontliners. Most of them are scared of their shadows. At some point you have to do what’s best for the institution,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who backed up Hoyer over the pay issue in a recent meeting with GOP leaders. “I absolutely think there’s a majority of members who are for this idea.”
Hoyer remains defiant even after Democrats yanked a spending bill, typically considered the least contentious measure of all, because it would have forced a vote on the pay issue. Hoyer and other supporters argue that it’s not a pay increase but simply an adjustment to keep salaries in line with rising living costs after a decade of dormancy — a position that Hoyer has taken for decades.
The Maryland Democrat told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers would indeed vote on the $4,500 pay increase in the coming months, and insisted that he can still make a truce with Republicans who object to the pay boost.
“Unlike some members, I’m pretty out front,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “I think [a cost of living] adjustment is appropriate. Members have now seen 10 years of a freeze. We don’t want to have only rich people here.”
An aide to Hoyer said the majority leader will talk with Democrats and Republicans about the issue to see if they’ll address it in an appropriations bill or elsewhere.
But within the Democratic caucus, a small group of lawmakers are publicly and privately fuming at Hoyer, arguing that he consulted Republican leaders but not his own caucus.
“I don’t think it was wise at this moment, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents the city of Flint, where the average annual income is about $26,000. Members of Congress earn $174,000. “When working Americans are not seeing their wages go up, I can’t imagine how we do this.”
“A lot of us think that it’s the wrong move and the wrong time,” Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) added. “I think people do expect to work together, but let’s work to solve health care and the rising cost of prescription drugs before we work together to give ourselves a raise.”
McAdams, one of Democrats’ most vulnerable freshmen, expressed his opposition to Hoyer and introduced an amendment that would have blocked the increase.
Hoyer — who often touts his ties to the party’s moderate members, including many in the historic freshman class — has suddenly found himself at odds with many of the new Democrats who helped deliver them the majority.
Instead, he has won support from progressives, including freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) —who tweeted in favor of the cost of living adjustment— while hearing an earful from battleground Democrats like McAdams and Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.).
But not all swing-district Democrats are looking to avoid a floor fight on the issue.
“I don’t need the increase personally. But not everybody is in that position, and I want the country served by the best and brightest,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a wealthy businessman who ousted a GOP incumbent in 2018. “I think Mr. Hoyer is looking out for people, and that’s what we should be doing.”
Still, many vulnerable freshmen said they were stunned by Hoyer’s efforts, unaware that the spending bill — which had already advanced in committee — would have allowed the pay increase. Several lawmakers said they learned about it for the first time just before a large group of members headed to Europe for World War II commemoration last week.
“This really caught us by surprise. Everyone was like, ‘what the hell?’” one Democratic aide said.
Hoyer has been pushing for the cost of living adjustment behind the scenes for months. Earlier this year, he helped convince the House Appropriations Committee to allow the pay raise in this year’s bill — something that Republicans had intentionally blocked every year since 2009. But privately, some had warned that the issue could blow up on the floor.
Other Democrats, including many in the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have strongly backed Hoyer’s intentions.
“Many of us have to support two households. Many of us don’t have two incomes. Many of us live in areas where it’s very, very expensive to live,” said Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the CBC.
“The expenses that go along with this position are substantial,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the CPC, added. “We have to be able to explain some of this, but in the end, we want to fight for every worker to get raises every year, that should be part of our platform.”
Hoyer’s plan required buy-in from House Republican leaders — an accord that he thought he had secured in a private meeting with House Minority Leader McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
But the party leaders’ hold-hands-and-jump strategy backfired after the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm, failed to follow directives from McCarthy not to attack Democrats on the issue.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, McCarthy would not publicly endorse the idea. But he didn’t rule it out, and his talking points closely matched Hoyer’s — arguing that Congress shouldn’t be run by the rich, and pointing out that the executive branch has been taking cost-of-living increases even as Congress froze its own pay.
“I do not want Congress, at the end of the day, to only be a place that millionaires serve. This should be a body of the people. And I think it’s something that should be looked at it,” McCarthy said.