WASHINGTON — Last week, a group of freshman Democrats — primarily from districts long held by Republicans — approached the House majority leader with a seemingly odd demand: Block our pay raises.
It has been 10 years since members of Congress have gotten even a cost-of-living increase, and the leader, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, had privately negotiated a deal with Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, to allow pay on Capitol Hill to rise with inflation — without the usual political attacks that follow.
But for Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns, the threat of attack served to underscore a decades-old reality about congressional pay raises: The political optics were just not worth it.
“I just think it’s the wrong move for Congress to talk about the cost-of-living adjustment when there are all these glaring problems that have yet to be fixed and are waiting for congressional action,” said Representative Ben McAdams, a freshman Democrat who won his Utah seat by 694 votes.
As a result, a vast spending bill for the fiscal year that begins in October will reach the House floor on Wednesday without the section that covers Congress as lawmakers negotiate whether to maintain the frozen pay rate of $174,000 a year for rank-and-file members.
“The reason we have done this in a bipartisan fashion is because people are demagoguing it, and I don’t want any of my members who are in tough districts subjected to that,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters.
The renewed debate has prompted serious grappling with the failure of American politics to account for rising costs of living, especially for lawmakers who maintain homes in high-cost Washington and high-cost districts. Advocates for the raise, including some of the brash new members of the 116th Congress, argue that the frozen pay has contributed to high turnover rates and a legislative body that does not match the people it represents.
“I see members all the time, I see the financial pressure that they’re under because this job is unique,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, who recently returned to her bartending roots for an event protesting income inequality. “Members of Congress, retail workers — everybody should get a cost of living increase to accommodate for the changes in our economy.”
Mr. Hoyer, who has for years worked to broker deals to ensure the automatic cost-of-living adjustments written automatically into annual spending bills will not be blocked, argued on Tuesday that the limits on member pay also undercut congressional aides who do the bulk of the behind-the-scenes legislative work.
Adjusting for the cost of living would allow members and committees to pay staff more, since current law prevents the salaries for congressional aides from exceeding those of elected members.
“We have some extraordinary people who work on Capitol Hill — extraordinary — whose counterparts in the executive department, and clearly in the private sector, are being paid substantially more,” Mr. Hoyer said. “So this is not just about members. This is about the institution of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and our ability to be competitive as an employer, and to get the best and brightest.”
Mr. McCarthy said on Tuesday that the issue evoked “kind of an impulsive emotion” that “we should pause and look at.”
“I do not want Congress, at the end of the day, to be a place where only millionaires serve,” Mr. McCarthy said.
But even as some House Democrats were voicing concerns about the optics of a raise, the House Republican campaign arm fired off an email attacking “socialist elites” in the Democratic Party for seemingly demanding higher pay, appearing to validate their unease. The National Republican Congressional Committee later deleted the news release from its website.
As word spread that the increase would not be blocked in the spending bill, freshman members began to pre-emptively counter it, vowing to reject or donate any additional money. Others signed onto a bipartisan amendment that would add language blocking the automatic increase.
A senior Democratic aide said conversations would probably continue among members about the fate of the measure. But Senate Republicans would most likely block a raise.
Since the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 first established the guidelines in use, Congress has had the opportunity to block the automatic cost-of-living pay adjustments. Had members received every adjustment since 1992 without any changes in the guidelines, the 2019 salary would be $210,900, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Instead, the language blocking congressional raises in spending bills every year since 2009 has cumulatively eroded members’ salaries by 15 percent, when adjusted for inflation. Other federal employees have received across-the-board pay raises, including a small one this year.
“We have been systematically disinvesting in Congress,” said Daniel Schuman, a former congressional aide who is the policy director for Demand Progress, an advocacy group that focuses on civil liberties and government accountability. “That means that Congress is terribly underfunded and not capable of taking on the executive branch.”
“What you’re really doing is cutting off oxygen to the government’s brain,” he added.
Representative Abigail Spanberger, a freshman Democrat from Virginia who opposes a raise, said she would prefer to see a broader conversation about the challenges of becoming a member of Congress and what could be done to change budget practices on Capitol Hill.
“At a time now where so many people just don’t believe that their legislators are working with their best interests at heart,” Ms. Spanberger said, “anything we can prioritize that affirms that we’re worried about them, such as voting on bills that directly impact them and not us, is something we should be doing.”
Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, called it “utterly insane” that the House would consider allowing the pay increase to go into effect.
Many members of the new Democratic majority benefited from attacking Republicans on similar grounds, and they are well aware of the political effect in swing districts. Few were able to say what environment might allow a cost-of-living increase for the legislative branch.
“Not six months in the first year of Congress, that’s for damned sure,” said Representative Joe Cunningham, a freshman Democrat from South Carolina. “People sent me here to disagree with leadership, and that’s what I’m doing.”