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Legislative Branch spending bill advances without member pay bump

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: June 14, 2024, 8:36am

WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday night reinstated language in the fiscal 2025 Legislative Branch spending bill blocking a cost-of-living adjustment for members of Congress, which they’ve denied themselves every year for more than a decade.

The spending bill, which would provide $5.5 billion in funding for the legislative branch — excluding Senate-only items — advanced out of committee on a 33-24 party-line vote. It represents a 3.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

The COLA block was part of a manager’s amendment introduced by Legislative Branch Appropriations Chair David Valadao, R-Calif., and was adopted by voice vote, though not without some debate.

“I live in the Washington, D.C., area. It’s an expensive area in which to live,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. “This is a serious issue as to whether or not the only people who can serve here are rich people.”

Most lawmakers — with the exception of those in certain leadership positions — make $174,000 per year. That figure hasn’t budged since 2009, owing in part to fear of how a perceived pay raise would play politically. Hoyer noted that failure to institute a COLA actually amounts to a pay cut because of inflation and that high housing costs in D.C. could bar people who aren’t independently wealthy from running for office.

He found an unlikely ally in Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., who also spoke out against the language, citing “constitutional problems.”

Last year, the House version of the bill made it out of committee without the typical language blocking the COLA, but the final fiscal 2024 law was enacted with a pay freeze in place.

The Legislative Branch bill is the smallest of the 12 appropriations bills Congress handles each year and often gets little fanfare. The committee took it up around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, on the heels of two others. After hours of debate on the Defense and the Financial Services and General Government spending measures, members were eager to go home.

“It’s not the sexiest bill. . . . It’s not the most interesting. But it stirs my wonky little heart,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

The bill would provide $1.9 billion for House salaries and expenses. Capitol Police would get a boost of 5 percent over current funding, to more than $830 million.

“It ensures Congress remains open, safe, and working for the American people and provides the resources necessary for Congress to effectively serve our constituents and conduct oversight responsibilities,” said Valadao, who is in the midst of his first budget cycle as subcommittee chair after taking the reins in April.

Democrats said it was close to a bill they could get behind, if not for the inclusion of conservative policy riders they said would target diversity initiatives, allow for discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, and undermine environmental efforts.

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“The bill’s reasonable funding levels are proof that the majority is capable of writing bills that can get bipartisan support [and] have a path to becoming law, if they could simply abandon their obsession with these partisan riders, which we know will be removed from the final agreement,” said House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Chief among the Democrats’ complaints is language that would prohibit discriminatory action against a person who “speaks, or acts, in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction, that marriage is, or should be recognized as, a union of one man and one woman.”

The Republican spending bill would also block the use of funds for any office, program or activity related to diversity, equity and inclusion training or implementation “that promotes or perpetuates divisive concepts related to race or sex.”

That language comes after the shuttering of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, funding for which was zeroed out by Republicans in fiscal 2024.

Democrats tried to revive funding for the ODI, as well as strike other sections of the bill they found inflammatory, in an en bloc amendment offered Thursday by Legislative Branch Appropriations ranking member Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. But the amendment was defeated.

Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California introduced an amendment that would allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients to work in Congress. Aguilar has repeatedly introduced such amendments during the appropriations process, but they have gone down on party lines. Currently, DACA recipients can work in Congress and the federal government if they’re employed by a third party, but federal funds can’t be expended to pay their personnel costs.

“DACA has been transformative for the lives of thousands of young people. They’re nurses and doctors and teachers. They’re homeowners. They’re small-business owners,” Espaillat said in support of the amendment. “Some of them don’t even speak the language of the country they were born in. They have no relatives in that nation. And they feel just as American as any one of us.”