Federal Employees Making More Than Members of Congress? How Can That Be?

Can a federal employee make more money than an elected Member of Congress or the Congressional leadership? What about the pay cap?

The federal salary structure is confusing, at best. The General Schedule is the best-known salary system but it is hardly the only one. And, as OPM director John Berry said recently, the current federal pay system is “straining and … balkanized to the point that it risks failure.”

There is no doubt that confusion reigns with it comes to information about the federal salary structure–even among federal employees who may be knowledgeable about their own salary structure but not familiar with the system used in different agencies. I do not pretend to be an expert on the various iterations of the federal salary structure.

Readers raised various questions about the salary levels for federal employees. One of the most intriguing were questions that read: “How can a federal employee make over $213,000 a year? That is more than the salary paid to a Congressman and I thought federal employees were ‘capped’ so that no one made this much money?”

Good point and the question was asked in one form or another by several readers.

Some federal employees are making more money than Congressional representatives. Some federal employees are making more money than some of the leaders of Congress make.

The salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate is $174,000 per year as of 2011-2012. The majority and minority leaders in the House and the Senate each make $193,400. The Speaker of the House makes $223,500.

So what about the pay cap for federal employees? For federal employees under the General Schedule, there is a pay cap. The aggregate limitation on pay for calendar year 2012 is generally $155,500, with exceptions. You can read about some of the various eccentricities of this portion of the “balkanized” federal pay system in this OPM memorandum.

The number of federal employees making more than those elected Congressional representatives is relatively small. In last week’s article, I randomly selected human resources management as a career field to search and found two people in the database making more than $200,000. These jobs are in the Comptroller of the Currency which is within the Department of the Treasury.

The other highest paid federal employees in this field are in agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration. These are agencies with enabling legislation to operate under a pay system that is different than the General Schedule.

These higher salaries are not limited to those in the human resources field. For example, check out the highest salaries in the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There are 22 people making more than $200,000 a year, most of them in the legal profession.

When the director of OPM refers to the “balkanized” pay structure of the federal government, this is probably the type of situation he has in mind. Is a person in the human resources field worth tens of thousands of dollars a year more when working for one agency than in another?

Perhaps they are worth more because of the necessary expertise to recruit employees necessary to accomplish the work of the agency. And, as we pointed out in a recent article involving the Securities and Exchange Commission, Congress has passed legislation authorizing higher salaries in some agencies–most often in the financial regulatory arena. (See A Dispute That Could Only Arise Between Public Employees and a Governmental Agency) And, of course, the federal employees making the higher salaries are not answering to the voters and having to defend their salary in the heat of an election campaign as a Congressman might have to do after getting a large pay boost.

So, in answer to the question of how a federal employee can make more salary than Members of Congress, you will have to get a job with an agency that has a special pay system.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47