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Claim about congressional ‘pay raise’ omits key information
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- The U.S. House of Representatives changed its reimbursement rules. For the first time, lawmakers can be reimbursed for expenses related to living in Washington, D.C., similar to the way private-sector employees are reimbursed when they’re out of town on business. But the change did not affect base pay.
- House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was not solely responsible for the change. It was set in motion when Democrats controlled Congress and advanced through two committees with strong bipartisan support.
- The U.S. Constitution’s 27th Amendment bars lawmakers from passing a law to raise their own pay. But the reimbursement rules change wasn’t a law, and experts say it’s unclear whether the newly allowable reimbursements would qualify as compensation prohibited by the amendment.
Few issues make voters angrier than seeing taxpayer dollars used for salary increases for their political representatives. So, it’s not surprising that a recent change in how the U.S. House of Representatives pays its members’ expenses has drawn bipartisan criticism.
Brian Tyler Cohen, a liberal commentator and podcast host, shared a screenshot of a tweet on Facebook, blaming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, for the change. The May 3 post said McCarthy "has quietly implemented a pay raise for members (of Congress) that could be $30,000+ per person. It circumvents the Constitution by instead reimbursing their rent, utilities, & meals."
Cohen’s post also was shared on Facebook by the liberal advocacy group Occupy Democrats. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ideological spectrum, conservative commentator James Bovard wrote a New York Post column criticizing the same policy, without focusing on McCarthy’s role.
The House did change how lawmakers’ expenses are reimbursed. However, it’s not accurate to call the change a pay raise because it addresses reimbursements for expenses paid. Also, the change was approved with strong bipartisan support, and there’s no evidence that the new policy "circumvents the Constitution."
Cohen did not respond to an inquiry for this article.
House salaries, which are $174,000 for rank-and-file members and higher for a small number of top leaders, have remained constant since 2009, amid public pressure not to raise them.
For lawmakers, serving in Congress exacts a financial burden: They either have to move full-time to the Washington, D.C., area and travel back to their districts regularly, or maintain living spaces both at home and in Washington. Both options are pricey.
Over the years, some members of Congress have sought to save money by turning portions of their congressional offices into ad hoc bedrooms. One young member, newly elected Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., tweeted about his trouble finding an affordable place in Washington, D.C., saying, "This ain’t meant for people who don’t already have money."
In 2022, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — a bipartisan panel charged with improving how Congress functions — held a hearing at which former Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said he left Congress because he couldn’t financially afford continuing to serve.
In its final report, the modernization committee sought to rectify this problem by supporting "alignment" of Congress’ reimbursement policies with those in the private sector.
In December 2022, without fanfare, the House Administration Committee approved a resolution, with no objections from its bipartisan membership, to amend the reimbursement rules in the members’ Congressional Handbook.
In March 2023, the House Administration Committee’s new membership voted — again, unanimously and on a bipartisan basis — on the final wording changes in the handbook.
Experts say that calling this a pay raise is dubious.
Under the new rule, for the first time, lawmakers can seek reimbursement for living expenses incurred in the Washington, D.C., area, including rent, utilities and meals.
The House’s change addresses a situation familiar to private company workers who are sent to work in far-away locales. Most companies foot a reasonable array of expenses, such as hotel or rental costs, transportation and meals. Under most scenarios, it’s considered reimbursement for expenses incurred on the company’s behalf, not a pay raise.
"If by ‘pay raise’ Cohen means an increase in lawmakers' fixed regular salary — which would be the commonsense definition of the term — then no, it is not a pay raise," said Matthew Green, a Catholic University of America political scientist.
"The word ‘implemented’ implies that Speaker McCarthy initiated or enacted this," Green said. "That would be false."
The changes were initiated when Democrats held the majority and were subsequently implemented by the new Republican majority. The process moved forward in two separate committees with bipartisan support.
"The effort to make sure that Members are reimbursed for housing expenses has been bipartisan in nature from the very beginning," said the chamber’s top Democrat, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
After the policy change became widely known, lawmakers from both parties told Fox News that the new policy was good.
"It makes a lot of sense," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, said, "Congress was out of line with traditional workplace reimbursement structures."
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said, "There are a lot of Members who are having a hard time with expenses. So I think it was probably needed."
That figure likely stems from a New York Times estimate it said was based on current government reimbursement rates, and it’s plausible, but not certain.
The lawmakers’ reimbursements will derive from the existing pots of money allocated to each member of Congress for staff salaries, equipment and other office needs. So, lawmakers will have to choose between reimbursing their own Washington, D.C., living expenses or using that money to pay staff or for other office costs. For that reason, some lawmakers may choose not to use it to reimburse themselves. Another factor they may consider is that any reimbursements would be taxable.
The rule also requires public disclosure of the reimbursements, said Demian Brady, vice president of research at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. This could discourage maximum use.
"Lots of jobs offer reimbursement for expenses up to a certain maximum, without employees actually reaching that maximum in their expenses," Green said.
The relevant portion of the Constitution is the 27th Amendment, which was ratified in 1992. It says, "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened." In other words, if Congress passes a law to increase its pay, it must take effect with the next Congress.
Green said that because the rule change was not a law, "the 27th Amendment doesn't apply." Even if the change were a law, he said, "the key phrase in the 27th Amendment is ‘compensation for … services.’" Green believes it could be strongly argued that reimbursement for expenses does not qualify as compensation for services.
Cohen wrote that McCarthy "has quietly implemented a pay raise for members (of Congress) that could be $30,000+ per person. It circumvents the Constitution by instead reimbursing their rent, utilities, & meals."
The House’s rule change is not accurately described as a pay raise. Rather, for the first time, lawmakers can be reimbursed for living expenses in Washington, D.C., the same type of reimbursements that private-sector employers regularly give workers.
And the reimbursements will have to come from the existing pot of money congressional members are given to pay for office staff and other expenses. There is no "pay raise."
McCarthy did not spearhead the change. It was set in motion when Democrats controlled Congress and advanced through two committees with strong bipartisan support.
The 27th Amendment bars lawmakers from passing a law that raises their pay, but the change wasn’t to a law. It’s also unclear whether the newly allowable reimbursements would qualify as compensation prohibited by the amendment.
Cohen refers to a real change the House made in recent months, but he mischaracterizes it in several ways. We rate the statement Mostly False.
Brian Tyler Cohen, Facebook post, May 3, 2023
Occupy Democrats, Facebook post, May 4, 2023
James Bovard, "Congress’ unconstitutional pay scam gets members $34K raises," April 30, 2023
Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, hearing transcript, June 8, 2022
Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, final report, 2022
House Administration Committee, Resolution 118-15, adopted March 31, 2023
Maxwell Frost, tweet, Dec. 8, 2022
New York Times, "New Rule Could Give House Lawmakers a Tax-Free $34,000 Pay Bump," Jan. 12, 2023
Fox News, "The Speaker’s Lobby: Not quite a pay raise," May 3, 2023
Washington Examiner, "Hakeem Jeffries calls debt ceiling bill 'ransom note' and defends spending," April 28, 2023
Email interview with Matthew Green, Catholic University of America political scientist, May 7, 2023
Email interview with Demian Brady, vice president of research at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, May 8, 2023
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