One of the popular internet posts about Congress states that Members of Congress’ salary increases should be limited to 2.5 percent of their pay or the cost-of-living, whichever is higher. This creates the impression that Members of Congress are voting themselves pay raises willy-nilly, which is laughable, since congressional pay has not been increased for the last ten years.
The annual salary of a rank-and-file Member of Congress is $174,000. Congressional leaders earn more since they have additional responsibilities. The Speaker of the House receives $223,500 annually, and the Senate President pro tempore receives $193,400. The Majority and Minority Leaders in both Chambers receive $193,400.
Member salaries are set by statute. Since 1975, Members of Congress have been eligible for annual cost-of-living adjustments, and the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 made further changes to this system and established the guidelines currently in use. The pay adjustments are pegged to the Employment Cost Index (ECI), which is a way the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures how much the cost to employ workers changes. Congress has the option to vote down these adjustments—and they consistently do just that. Member pay has remained the same since 2009.
Although Federal law theoretically allows cost-of-living adjustments for Members of Congress, there are other ways salaries could be changed. First, Congress could simply pass a law changing its pay. According to the Congressional Research Service, the last time this was done was in 1991, nearly 30 years ago. Additionally, the 1989 Ethics Reform Act provided for a Citizens’ Commission on Public Service, which would make salary recommendations to the President, who would in turn make recommendations to Congress. After receiving the President’s recommendations, the two Chambers may consider privileged (priority) legislation to adopt them. This method of changing salaries has never been used.
Members may earn incomes outside their official duties, but there are restrictions. They may earn no more than 15 percent of the Level II of the Executive Schedule, the table that determines the pay scale of high-level political appointees in the Executive Branch. According to the House Ethics Committee, the limit on outside earned income for Members of Congress was $28,440 in 2019. Aside from limiting how much Members may earn moonlighting, there are also restrictions on how they may do so. For instance, since 1991, both Representatives and Senators have been forbidden from accepting payments for speeches. Or, as another example, Members may not practice law for compensation or almost any professional activity that involves a fiduciary responsibility. (This provision affects many Members, since at the start of the 115th Congress an estimated 50 Senators and 168 House Members were lawyers.) Aside from any formal restrictions on earning outside income, there are practical limits: Today, the schedule of a Member of Congress is so heavy that it would be very difficult to earn much in the way of outside employment.
Members of both the House and Senate must file forms disclosing the sources of their outside income, whether earned or passive (like dividends from the stock market, book royalties or the like). Both the House and Senate make Member disclosure forms publicly available, including online. House disclosures are published through the office of the Clerk, and Senate disclosures through the Secretary of the Senate.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.