So What if Congressional Staff Levels are Declining?

Guest blog post by Profs. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas

Following Daniel Schuman’s presentation to the Legislative Branch Capacity Working group on June 20, R Street Institute’s Kevin Kosar posted a series of informative charts measuring congressional staff levels overall, the percentage based in DC versus the state and district, and the growth of party leadership staff (especially in the House). The figures were based upon Congressional Research Service data (CRS).

While the decline in congressional staff is evident, the timeframe of the CRS data is too short to see the full extent of the decline. Elsewhere, New America’s Lee Drutman and Johns Hopkins University’s Steven Teles chart similar data back much further, capturing the post-WWII rise and the post-Watergate decline. Political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones reveal the consequences of this decline for how government solves problems – or fails to do so.

One might see this evidence and think, “So what?” Fax machines, computers, and iPhones have made some staff obsolete. Or, the reaction may be, “Good! Sending staff to the district and state helps members stay in tune with their constituents.” If these assertions are true, then the Washington-based staff decline would have zero impact on other forms of professional political work.

But we do see an impact. In our book on lobbyists (currently under review), we track the post-Watergate decline in congressional staff along with the rise of the so-called “revolving door” in Washington. Simply, we find that the decline in policy-based staff in Washington trends in the opposite direction as the rise of revolving door lobbyists. Here, we discuss some of our findings and describe those lobbyists who previously worked in Congress.

First, AEI-Brookings Vital Statistics on Congress data show declines in both the percentage of DC-based staff, and the decline of staff employed primarily by standing committees.

Source: This figure and all others in this blog post were produced by Profs. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas.

Source: This figure and all others in this blog post were produced by Profs. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas.

So, that’s the “political” staff. What about the non-partisan civil servants?

Below we show a decline in the raw numbers of legislative support agency (LSA) staff (including CRS, other Library of Congress, Government Accountability Office, etc.). 

But, there is more to the story than just the declining number of personnel. We also calculate the ratio of LSA civil servants to “political” staff at home or in DC, which has trended downward since the 1970s.

Why does this matter? In the same time period, the federal government has not become less complex. Quite the contrary.

Somebody has to fill the void of now absent committee and legislative support staff. In our book, we argue that it is not a coincidence that the demand for “revolving door lobbyists” has grown at the same time. In effect, Congress has outsourced its analytic capacity to K Street lobbyists working for special interests, rather than internally delegating it to staff working for members’ constituents

Borrowing data from colleagues Jeffrey Lazarus, Amy McKay, and Lindsey Herbel, we see the number of members of Congress becoming lobbyists go up steadily in the same time period.

And, borrowing data from Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas, we see a similar increase among former “covered officials” – individuals in legislative and executive branch positions defined by the Lobbying Disclosure Act who must report previous federal positions – who become lobbyists.

 

With our own data drawn from a sample of registered lobbyists in 2008, we further show that at least 1 in 2 lobbyists worked in some capacity in the government. 

More importantly, about 40% worked on Capitol Hill. And they come (roughly) equally from both parties, though slightly more likely to come from the Senate (given the smaller number of staff to start with) than the House.

Here’s how former congressional staff-turned-lobbyists break down, by office, chamber, and party:

Why do staffers leave for K Street? Because it pays. Here we show median lobbying revenue among contract lobbyists in 2008, by position on Capitol Hill. (Note “revenue” is not necessarily “salary,” but is a pretty good rough estimate).

With the decline in DC congressional staff, it’s not as if the people who once filled those jobs are moving to jobs back in the district or state. They’re heading out to K Street. So, from our analysis, it seems obvious that Washington-based, policy-oriented staff have not been replaced by computers so members of Congress can better serve constituents.  

They’ve become lobbyists who serve paying clients.

Tim LaPira is an associate professor of political science at James Madison University. Herschel Thomas is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.