A Framework for Congressional Staffing: A Few Thoughts from Management Consulting

Guest blog post by Brian Alexander, Ph.D.

The question of “is Congress well-staffed?” can be approached just as any staffing problem is approached across the federal government and the private sector, by answering this question: What is the appropriate size of the solution given the scope of the problem? Any agency, any federal contractor, any business or organization would ask such a question when determining an optimal staffing size, composition, and budget. When I worked as a management consultant for federal and commercial clients, we regularly had to determine “How many?” and “What kind?” of staff are needed to solve the problem we were being asked to solve. From there, we could then ask, “How much?” and budget accordingly. 

To specifically assess how many and what kind of staff the legislative branch should have, three considerations should be addressed:

1.   What is the size of the problem?

The size of the problem that Congress is responsible for is national and global in scope. Framing this problem and determining the objectives of Congress’s role in meeting its challenges could be an endless exercise. Yet, some simple facts point to a need for far more staff than Congress currently maintains in order to perform its constitutional duties and to serve the American public at home and abroad. Consider growth in the size and diversity of the U.S. population over recent decades, the growth in the size and budget of executive branch agencies, the expansion of federal authority generally, and the number and scope of domestic and international public policy questions that the legislative branch confronts in the twenty-first century. Growth across each of these fields strongly suggests that a concurrent decline in congressional staff is puzzling if not simply wrong-headed. With a declining relative and absolute staff size, is it reasonable to expect that members of Congress can attend to the needs of a growing numbers of constituents? Or perform the constitutional duty to act as a check-and-balance against the executive branch? Or respond to an increasingly complex and interconnected world in the U.S. and overseas? Given the growth in the size of the problem, unless we believe that Congress has become more efficient in doing its work (and is there anyone who would make that case?), the size of congressional staff needs to increase as well.

2.   What kind of staff does Congress need?

Complex problems require complex solutions. Staffing is no different. Personnel should be aligned and the mix of employee skills should be optimized to meet the challenges the legislative branch faces. Institutional and bureaucratic processes should be established to handle the needs of Congress, its members, and the people it serves. However, Congress is increasingly staffed by relatively inexperienced, albeit talented, young people, who work on the Hill a few years before moving on to other things. The reasons for such turnover include tight legislative branch budgets, increasing costs of living in Washington, DC, and the general absence of a professional development path for most congressional staff. Contrary to the executive branch, in member offices the notion of professionals who spend a bulk of their career moving up through the ranks is an exception. Indeed, rather than fostering a personnel mix of the young and the experienced, of generalists and specialists, and of managers who can oversee the functioning of the entire operation, we provide over 600 member offices and committees Spartan budgets and leave them to figure it out on their own. Congressional support agencies, CBO, CRS, and GAO, do offer a different staffing model with career paths that favor tenure and bureaucratic structures that reward specialization, experience, and training. Their staff levels, however, have either remained flat or declined over recent years.

3.   How many people, and of what kind, should be funded?

With a sense of the scope of the responsibilities and the mix of personnel that would optimally meet those responsibilities, we can begin to arrive at the level of effort and the kind of institutional capacity necessary to meet congressional staffing needs. Efforts to increase congressional staffing should consider that member offices, and to a lesser extent committees, operate as independent small businesses of varying longevity, whereas the support organizations provide institutional stability wherein best practices and overall congressional needs can be more reliably and predictably delivered. Increased funding for support agencies and perhaps committees would foster a more professionalized workforce in comparison to funding personal office staff. Alternative models such as the Canadian Parliament, where member and committee staff is very small and the bulk of policy work is done by the non-partisan Library of Parliament, should be looked at. Determining personnel needs and budgeting appropriately is not a perfect science. But successful organizations of all sizes, from small family-owned businesses to multinational corporations, make sensible determinations of how many and what kind of people they need to employ all the time. It should be no different with Congress.

Such questions and answers roughly outlined above are fundamental to any successful organizational plan. As it stands, if Congress put its staffing out to bid and offered the current budget and required the current personnel mix to address the scale of the existing problem, one wonders if any management consulting firm could submit a credible proposal for the business. But by asking what is the size of the problem, what kind of staff is necessary, and how many staff do we need, the appropriate size, mix, and budget of congressional staff can be determined. It is unlikely that all the money necessary could be budgeted or that a perfect staffing plan could be developed, but to date congressional staffing has not been based on the right questions about what the right solution should be.

Brian Alexander is a current American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate. He has worked as a management and strategy consultant for federal agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and public policy non-profits. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Mason University.