Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems to enjoy shocking the Washington establishment and appearing in headlines. Her latest announcement does both. She says that all her congressional staff will be paid a minimum of $52,000 a year, which she says is merely a living wage in the nation's fifth-most expensive city.

Predictably in these polarized times, the announcement was met with fury by some and praise by others. She's certainly bucking the norm in D.C., where Glassdoor reports salaries for a congressional staff assistant ranges from $28,000 to $37,000. Her lowest paid staffers will be making substantially more than bottom-level staff working for President Donald Trump, several of whom are paid $40,800 a year and one of whom earns only $30,000, according to a recent report from the White House.

But is this a bit of brilliance from AOC (as she's called), or is it self-sabotage, as some critics claim? The most problematic question surrounding the promised salaries is the same question any business leader would have to answer: If you're going to give employees more than the going rate, how will you pay for it? Unlike a business leader, Ocasio-Cortez can't simply raise the extra funds. Like all U.S. representatives, she has an allocation of about $1 million a year to pay up to 18 staff members and can divvy up that money how ever she sees fit. 

Ocasio-Cortez's press representative has said she will likely employ a full complement of 18 staffers, which means that the only way to pay junior level staff more than they might normally expect is to pay senior staff less than they that might normally expect. And that's exactly what Ocasio-Cortez says she will do. She told Roll Call that salaries in her office would not go higher than $80,000 a year, whereas experienced political staff members typically earn up to twice as much. (Ocasio-Cortez herself will receive the standard congressional annual salary of $174,000.) This partial leveling-out of what are usually widely divergent salaries earned sharp criticism from Fox's Pete Hegseth, who called it "socialism and communism on display." 

But, political hyperbole aside, what will be the likely effects if AOC goes through with her plan? Some have predicted that the $80,000 salary cap will make it impossible for her to hire the best talent, and that if more members of Congress adopted a similar model, the result would be that all the smartest people currently working for the legislative branch would go looking for jobs in the private sector instead.

That seems like a worthwhile concern. And some highly experienced aides and advisers may have big mortgage payments and/or kids in college and may simply not be able to afford to take a job that caps out at $80,000.

On the other hand, government salaries can never really compete with salaries in the private sector, which typically offers more lavish benefits and better work-life balance as well. Also, like many employers, AOC has a very definite mission, and probably wants to hire people who are fully on board with that mission. Reducing income inequality is a big concern of hers, so the salary structure, among other things, may be a good way to find out whether prospective senior staffers are still committed to that principle when it means a little less money in their own pockets.

Is $35,000 a living wage in Washington?

That's what might happen at the high end of the salary range. But now consider what will happen at the low end. The fact of the matter is that even a $35,000 job just isn't enough to cover cost of living in D.C., where typical rents are over $2,000 a month (or $24,000 a year). That means either splitting a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate, or having $11,000 left to cover absolutely everything else, including utilities, groceries, taxes, transportation, and clothing. 

As a result, most junior staffers either get extra funds from their families, or take on second jobs to make ends meet. That's what one 22-year-old congressional staffer was doing--working at a local restaurant every weekend and never having a day off--until she got a job with Ocasio-Cortez. 

Consider, for a moment, the extra energy and enthusiasm young staffers can bring to a job if they're not perpetually exhausted from working evenings and weekends at a second one. Think about the loyalty they'll have to Ocasio-Cortez as they gain more experience and move up the job ladder. And then, of course, there are all the headlines (including this one) about her new salary structure, which may make her office the number-one place junior congressional staff will want to work. The gains in productivity, loyalty, and employee engagement could far outweigh any talent loss caused by the $80,000 cap. If so, that would mean Ocasio-Cortez's newfangled salary structure is one of the smartest moves a new member of Congress has ever made.

Published on: Mar 4, 2019
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