How Executive Detailees Could Help Ease Congress’ Staffing Problems

Source: Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin, 2017.

Source: Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin, 2017.

By Casey Burgat

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that Congress has a staffing problem. While the executive branch employs more than 4 million people, the legislative branch has only about 30,000. This number includes personnel toiling for agencies that do not readily come to mind as legislative, like the Government Publishing Office, the Architect of the Capitol and the U.S. Capitol Police.

While congressional capacity advocates shout for more funding and personnel to be allocated to the legislative branch, political scientists Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin examine the use of an often-overlooked stream of expertise available to congressional committees: federal agency detailees. Detailees are executive agency personnel with a particular policy mastery who are temporarily loaned out to congressional committees. The typical detailee assignment runs one year.

Hill operators and observers have long known policy expertise resides primarily in congressional committee staff. Compared to House and Senate personal office aides, committee staffers typically have more experience and narrower portfolios, both of which enhance the abilities of committees and their members to conduct oversight, draft legislation and develop fruitful lines of communication with relevant agency stakeholders.

However, as Mills and Selin point out in a recent piece in Legislative Studies Quarterly, there are only about half as many committee staff as there were in 1980, while inflation-adjusted pay levels have fallen 20 percent for many committee aides. This reduction in resources has hampered committees’ oversight capabilities, in addition to abetting the centralization of policymaking in leadership offices or its complete delegation to the executive branch.

Mills and Selin argue detailees offer at least three specific benefits to supplement Congress’ legislative and oversight responsibilities:

  1. Detailees provide additional legislative support. Though committee staffers are usually issue specialists, “detailees often have specialized, expert knowledge of a policy, [and] they are able to provide awareness more traditional congressional staff may not have.” Moreover, given their personal experience within the agencies, detailees offer committees important insight into the decision-making processes and likely agency responses to potential congressional action.
  2. Detailees assist with executive branch oversight. “The process for securing information through requests directly to a federal agency is slower and involves agency coordination with the presidential administration. Detailees provide a way around these problems.” Simply having agency contacts and being able to connect committee staffers directly to those agency personnel most likely to respond quickly with accurate information can expedite the frustratingly slow information-gathering process vital to conducting effective congressional oversight.
  3. Detailees supplement interest-group engagement. In developing policy, committee staffers spend much of their time meeting with relevant policy stakeholders. “Committee staff routinely assists members of Congress by meeting with interest groups to gather their input for legislative initiatives as well as to hear their objections or support for actions taken by executive agencies.” Detailees provide the committee more, and different, stakeholder contacts established from the agency perspective, which allows for better information filtering and a more informed assessment of legislative potential.

Finally, and importantly, Mills and Selin point out that use of detailees is a rare win-win for both the legislative and the executive branches. The benefits to Congress are clear: committees gain expert-level staffers with experience and connections to the agencies under the committee’s purview, all on the agencies’ dime. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has noted:

These detailees apply their expertise in researching issues, staffing hearings, and working on legislation. In return, they gain valuable experience, which develops their careers and benefits their agencies.

The gains for the executive branch are less intuitive. After all, the agency loses a competent staffer who then offers Congress firsthand insight into agency operations, even potentially providing increased oversight to the very agency from which the staffer originated.

But Mills and Selin note that, from qualitative interviews they conducted with current and former detailees, they discovered that “detailees gain experience in the legislative process, can represent the interests and perspectives of the agency, and give the agency a conduit to committee decision making.”

In other words, just as detailees provide insider information to committees on agency operations, agencies profit from their detailees returning to the agency with intelligence on committee decision-making, policymaking and oversight capabilities. All of which our personnel-strapped national legislature badly needs.

Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute.