Skip to content
Can Reimbursing Lawmakers’ Expenses Build a Better Congress?
Go to my account

Can Reimbursing Lawmakers’ Expenses Build a Better Congress?

New rules to ease the financial burden of public service risk political backlash.

Tulips bloom outside the U.S. Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

House members will soon be able to seek reimbursement for meals, lodging, and other expenses while in Washington, D.C., for congressional business. Lawmakers are arguably underpaid, but the new rules could still prompt public resentment. 

Until now, members have paid for lodging and meals during D.C. work weeks out of their own pockets. Their $174,000 salaries are staying the same—lawmakers haven’t agreed to give themselves a pay raise since 2009—but the new reimbursement rules will help members who are juggling accommodations in D.C. alongside their normal living expenses. 

If the concept of reimbursing members of Congress for D.C. living expenses makes you recoil in horror, you’re not alone. Voters generally don’t want to give lawmakers more money. That’s why members are afraid to raise their own salaries to match inflation, and it’s why even boosting staff pay is considered a big lift.

Yet the stagnation is causing real problems. House salaries are uncompetitive when trying to recruit the best and brightest to run for Congress, and the costs associated with being a member can block people with fewer resources from remaining in office.

Many members sleep in their Hill offices to save money. Some, like former Rep. Gregg Harper, have even retired because the finances weren’t sustainable.

Politico’s Katherine Tully-McManus first reported the latest details of the reimbursement plan, which was approved by the House Administration Committee on March 31: Members will have a $79 daily cap for meals and groceries when they are in the nation’s capital for official work. (Alcohol isn’t reimbursable.) Lawmakers will also be able to expense lodging costs during House business, with a daily rate capped between $172 and $258, varying by time of year. Hotel stays and rentals can be reimbursed under the rules, but members who own property in D.C. will be limited to expensing only insurance, utilities, and condo or HOA fees. The plan blocks members whose primary residences are within 50 miles of the Capitol from being reimbursed for lodging, “except in extraordinary circumstances.”

Reimbursement is voluntary, so many members who don’t need the help may not use it. Expenses will be publicly reported each quarter, opening the possibility of political attacks from opponents. 

Lawmakers also may have tough decisions about whether to cover their living expenses or spend that money on other priorities: Reimbursements will come out of the same accounts members use to pay staff, rent office space in their districts, and send mail to constituents.

“It’s not ideal,” said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “This puts it in a market system, where they have to choose. Do you want to do less franked mail? If you want to do this, do you want to pay your staff less? Do you want to travel less? Do you want to have fewer staples in the office?”

But the change, he said, is a no-brainer considering the House’s reluctance to raise members’ salaries: “This is baby steps, but the big picture is that we don’t want personal wealth being a deciding factor when people choose whether to run for Congress.”

The first member Glassman worked for in the 1990s slept in his office, he remembered. Back then it wasn’t considered a badge of honor the way some consider it now. “It was literally a financial decision, and he was embarrassed by it,” Glassman told The Dispatch. “He didn’t want anyone to know.”

“Members sleeping in their office because they can’t afford to rent a place in D.C. is, to me, unbecoming of a grand republic,” Glassman added.

The issue is part of a general trend of underfunding the legislative branch, Glassman argued. Political dynamics make change difficult, with members relying on workarounds like this one that aren’t quite as visible as an outright pay raise. Another option, he said, could be to take a cue from the Senate. Senators use a central account to rent office space in their home states, while House members take money out of their individual office allowances to do so. Using a central fund for the House instead would free up a lot of money in each office’s account for members to use on staff salaries—or to reimburse their own living expenses.

Former Rep. Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, thinks the new reimbursement rules could help cut down on ethics scandals: “If you have somebody who’s in Congress who is feeling so sufficiently income-constrained because of the campaign expectations and realities and the D.C. housing situation costs, in that scenario, it’s not a surprise that you have members of Congress who play fast and loose with the law and with ethics regulations and end up, for relatively small sums, being liable to corruption,” he said.

Meijer comes from a wealthy family and may not have used the reimbursement plan if he had remained in the House, but he argued it will help the institution. “If you have an overworked, understaffed, and underperforming Congress, expenses are just going to balloon in the executive branch,” he said. “There is very little fat to be trimmed in Congress relative to the fat that needs to be full-on excised from the executive branch.”

Glassman agreed: Slashing legislative branch spending is “the dumbest way” to cut the size of the federal government, he said, because “it is the oversight and genesis of all the spending in the other parts of the government.”

“I know most people don’t want to hear it, but increasing congressional capacity is totally compatible with reducing the size of the federal government,” he told The Dispatch. “In fact, it might get you there quicker.”

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.