Congressional pay just reached its lowest inflation-adjusted level since 1955

July 1, 2022

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Image: GovTrack Insider

If Sarah Palin wins her election to Alaska’s U.S. House seat this November, she will earn less money in Congress than she does recording personalized videos on Cameo.

The former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee charges $199 to record a video greeting, such as happy birthday. Last year, she earned $211.5K from the service, indicating that just over 1,000 people paid her for such a video.

As a member of Congress, she would earn $174K. And adjusted for inflation, that number just recently fell to its lowest level in Palin’s entire 58-year lifetime.

The numbers

To clarify, the actual raw number for congressional pay hasn’t fallen. In fact, that’s part of the issue.

Pay for rank-and-file members of Congress has remained at $174K since 2009, even as inflation has increased prices by +34% since then. (A few select officials in congressional leadership are paid more than $174K, including $223.5K for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and $193.4K for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.)

As a result of congressional salaries remaining unchanged while inflation continued unabated, the inflation-adjusted level of congressional pay has persistently fallen during the past 13 years. The fall was mild for most of that period, but dramatically accelerated in the past year, particularly since the second half of 2021.

The last time that inflation-adjusted congressional pay was as low as it is today? 1955. That dates back to the Rock Around the Clock era.

That “lowest since 1955” figure has been true since February for the House and in March for the Senate. (The Senate and House sometimes used to have different pay levels, but that last occurred in 1991.)

For what it’s worth, the historical high congressional salary occurred in 1969, with a modern-day equivalent of $340K as you can see in the full list of historical congressional pay since 1913, in both in raw numbers and adjusted for inflation.

How congressional pay works

In theory, Congress was supposed to have gotten a raise for every single one of the past 13 years.

Their pay level includes an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which goes into effect unless Congress affirmatively votes to overturn it. The idea is that congressional pay should keep up with economic conditions, while simultaneously removing a politically perilous vote. The attack ads for a politician who voted to raise their own pay practically write themselves.

In the past 31 years, Congress passively allowed the pay raise to go into effect 13 times but overturned it 18 times, including every year from 2009 to the present. If every scheduled pay raise had gone into effect, the salary would be about $223.4K today.

Should congressional pay be changed?

During the past 13 years when congressional pay remained unchanged, the closest that an increase came to actually occurring was 2019.

With a full decade since the last such increase, and good economic conditions so it wouldn’t seem like Congress voted itself a pay raise while the American people suffered, a bipartisan coalition appeared to agree on the idea. That is, until a sufficient contingent of both Republicans and Democrats balked at the proposal following public backlash.

The issue crossed party lines, with members of both parties supporting and opposing the plan alike. Supporters argued that the move would diversify Congress beyond primarily the independently wealthy. Opponents countered that not only would a congressional pay raise have been bad optics, but the legislative branch’s recent performance didn’t merit the raise in the first place.

Democrats in support: “Voting against cost of living increases for members of Congress may sound nice, but doing so only increases pressure on them to keep dark money loopholes open,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14) tweeted. “This makes campaign finance reform harder.”

Republicans in support: Top House Republican McCarthy actually expressed support before later flipping, in the wake of a revolt on the issue from the House Republicans he led. “I do not want Congress at the end of the day to only be a place where millionaires serve,” Rep. McCarthy originally said. “This should be a body of the people, and I think it’s something that should be looked at.”

Democrats opposed: “We need to make sure the American people get a pay raise [first],” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA10) said.

Republicans opposed: “We have to do some work here in D.C. before we can legitimately ask for that, so I don’t support doing that.” then-Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY23) said.

All four aforementioned politicians are on the lower end of congressional net worth.

Other ideas about congressional pay

Under current law, Congress gets paid the same “no matter what.” In the private sector,, employees often have annual reviews of their performance that determine whether or not they receive a pay change. In that vein, at least five recent proposals, from both major parties, seek to tie congressional pay to concrete legislative outcomes, a.k.a. “job performance.”

The Constitution’s 27th Amendment bans congressional pay changes — up or down — from going into effect until after the subsequent election. Ratified in 1992, the goal was to make Congress more hesitant to raise its own pay, since any member could lose their reelection bid and inadvertently vote in a pay raise for their general election opponent.

So any of these bills, if enacted, would take effect beginning with the next Congress beginning in January 2023.

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This article was written by GovTrack Insider staff writer Jesse Rifkin.

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Congressional pay just reached its lowest inflation-adjusted level since 1955 was originally published in GovTrack Insider on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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