Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is calling for higher wages for congressional staffers, in an effort to increase diversity on Capitol Hill.
On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez led 110 of her colleagues in Congress, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), in writing to the House committee on appropriations and demanding that more funds be allocated in the legislative branch budgets to be able to increase staff salaries by some 21%.
The lawmakers wrote that paying a low salary to entry-level staff will “continue to raise barriers to entry and advantage those who are already wealthy and connected,” making it that much harder to “recruit and retain the talented and diverse workforce we need to serve the diversity and needs of the American people.”
“It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid, overworked staff just because some conservatives want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility,’” Ocasio-Cortez said in a news release. “The lack of diversity on the Hill can be traced directly to our failure to pay staff a living wage.”
Reports from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that while people of color make up about 40% of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 11% of top staff in Senate offices in 2020 and only 13.7% of top staff in the House in 2018.
To ensure that “Congress reflects the American people we serve,” lawmakers wrote in Monday’s letter, “we must be able to recruit and retain a diverse and talented workforce.”
Pay for staff in lawmakers’ offices and committees has “fallen farther and farther” behind private sector salaries, the lawmakers’ letter says, while the cost of living in Washington, D.C., has risen over the years, “placing opportunities such as homeownership, rental housing, and childcare out of reach for many.”
Ocasio-Cortez has been advocating for paying higher wages to staff and interns on the Hill for years.
In 2018, Congress approved a spending bill setting aside funds for lawmakers to pay their interns — though a recent report found that more needs to be done to increase diversity among the people given these prestigious internships, who are still overwhelmingly young and white.
Dan Riffle, a former senior staffer for Ocasio-Cortez, wrote on Twitter that he left his position earlier this year because he “couldn’t afford” it.
Noting that positions on the Hill pay less than private sector work, as well as many nonprofit and local government jobs, Riffle said that Ocasio-Cortez was “a great boss and I adored my colleagues, but with two kids in daycare I just couldn’t afford the job.”