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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Capitol Hill staff and interns need "living wage"

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on primary upset

WASHINGTON — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected congresswoman from New York, rallied behind underpaid staff and unpaid interns on Capitol Hill and urged her soon-to-be workplace to increase funding for congressional offices. 

In a Monday afternoon tweet, Ocasio-Cortez said she talked to bartenders, managers and servers at a "dive bar" in Washington, D.C., this week who were working second jobs to support their day jobs in House and Senate offices. 

"This is a disgrace. Congress of ALL places should raise MRAs so we can pay staff an actual DC living wage," she wrote, referring to the Members' Representational Allowance, the budget members of Congress receive every session to operate their Capitol Hill and district offices.  

"It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just bc Republicans want to make a statement about 'fiscal responsibility,'" Ocasio-Cortez added. "If that's the case, they can cut down on staff to pay them well. Or raise the MRA."

The MRA has been included in every annual appropriations bill since it was established in 1996. The congressional allocation grants representatives and senators funds to pay staff and finance business travel and other expenses — like office rent, mail and utilities. These funds are separate from the annual $174,000 salary each rank-and-file member of Congress receives. 

After 2010, when appropriation for lawmakers' allowances reached a record high of $660 million, Congress reduced the amount allocated for three consecutive years and then made several modest increases and reductions the following fiscal years, according to the Congressional Research Service

In 2017, the average MRA for each member was $1,315,523 and the average amount lawmakers used to pay their staff was $944,671. The overall MRA appropriation for fiscal year 2018 was set at $562.6 million — a 14.8 percent decline from 2010. 

An analysis by the independent congressional research firm LegiStorm earlier this year found that the salaries of the worst-paid Senate and House staff roles, which tend to be entry-level positions like receptionists and mail coordinators, range between $32,000 and a little over $36,000. According to an estimate by Glassdoor updated just last month, the average annual salary for a congressional staff assistant, another entry-level position, is approximately $32,000.

Most Capitol Hill interns are not paid for their work. According to a 2017 study by the non-profit Pay Our Interns, only 6 percent percent of House offices paid their interns. The same report found that a higher percentage of Republicans in the Senate were compensating their interns. Fifty-one percent of Republican senators and 31 percent of Democratic senators paid their interns. 

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that interns and many entry-level staff on Capitol Hill are struggling to earn a living wage in the Washington metropolitan area, one of the most affluent parts of the country. 

One model, by Dr. Amy Glassmeier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that a single adult needs an income of $35,162 before taxes to cover the expenses of living in Washington, D.C. and the neighboring Northern Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria.