Notes from the June 20, 2016 Meeting on the Topic of Congressional Staff

More than 50 persons attended the meeting in the Capitol Visitors Center.

The meeting’s topic was congressional staff, and Daniel Schuman of DemandProgress presented data that showed reductions in committee staff and support agency staff over the past couple of decades, along with shifts of more staff to districts/home states (especially by senators) and toward leadership. Data on these topics may be found at http://www.legbranch.com/theblog/?category=Staff

The below notes attempt to capture the various points that came from the discussion. These notes were compiled by Lee Drutman (New America) and Adam Chan (R Street Institute), and we written up by Kevin R. Kosar (R Street Institute).

 

Are more congressional staff advisable? Yes, the workload demands more staffers, but whether it would augment Congress' policy-making power is unclear. Concerns include:

1. Limited physical space: where to put more staff?

a. Committee rooms often sit empty: why not use them as shared work space?

b. Is there any prospect for telework? (Concern: Telework would further attenuate the already weak relationship amongst congressional staff.

2. If members have incentives to assign staff to serve their politicking interests, then won't more adding staff do little to improve policy-making?

3. Some members if given more money (but not more FTEs) might raise salaries a bit but then give the rest back to the Treasury. (Counter-argument: This behavior might be redirected by only allowing them to give money to legislative branch support agencies?)

4. Should we really bemoan that members have assigned more of their finite staff to handle communications and district work? Aren’t offices simply responding to the demands placed on them by the 24/7 media environment?

5. The public may think Congress is overstaffed. So, adding more staff may elicit a public backlash

6. Perhaps technological advances over the past couple decades have reduced the need for staff, thus leading to a decline in number of staff.

7. Money won’t solve the problem; it’s all about incentives. We need a Congress that actually has a desire to assert itself as a branch more forcefully. How we get that is unclear. Some members want to reassert the First Branch; most do not.

 

The workload on congressional staff is very high.

1. Why not aim to offload some of the work on staff to free them to do more policy-work and oversight?

2. Outsourcing: are there any congressional offices duties that can be done by contractors?

3. Shared resources: should staff have more shared resources they could utilize to help them reduce their workloads?

4. Would workloads be more manageable if congressional districts were smaller, and there were fewer constituents to have to deal with?

5. To answer the “what to do” question requires learning: what are the demands on congressional staff time? What do staff actually do? What kinds of people should Congress hire (experts vs. ?)? How much specialization does Congress need?

 

Congressional staff pay has mostly stagnated or declined, especially for low-level staff. What effects may flow from this?

1. Are many or most young staff wealthy enough for their parents to subsidize them. (And is the class issue even more skewed for interns, who usually don’t get paid at all?)

2. What kind of people are staff positions in Congress attracting now? Is it just either idealists or ideologues? Is this the right kind of person to attract?

3. Can we discern where the pay-grade inflection points are that would keep DC staffers on the Hill?

 

Committees and their staff are worth a closer look.

1. Do committees have lower staff turnover than personal staff? Do committees paying higher staff salaries have lower turnover?

2. Should we look at Joint Committee on Taxation as a model? Are there other committees that have long-standing, professionalized staff that can work collegially?

3. On the balance of personal/committee staff, can we learn anything from the states? Do states that allocate more to committees do okay?

 

In thinking about congressional staff we should think about the executive branch.

1. A comparison of the growth of the executive branch (spending, personnel, etc.) compared to the legislative branch could be helpful. The larger the executive branch, the greater the oversight demands.

2. Increased policy complexity ("kludgeocracy" as Steven Teles called it) and a general aggregation of policy exacerbates the expertise gulf between Congress and the executive branch.