Congressional Pit Stop: How Legislative Dysfunction Deters Young Talent

By Megha Bhattacharya

Young people yearn to enact change and make their mark upon the world. Many of them, however, no longer see government as a viable arena in which to do so, in no small part due to congressional dysfunction.

Nurtured in a country constantly at war for most of my life, and thrust into maturity in the worst financial crisis in decades, my generation has grown a well-developed sense of political skepticism. Large swaths of young Americans no longer possess faith in political institutions and processes, and view the government as powerless to combat injustice or solve problems.

Yet without fail, throughout the school year, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics invites a myriad of political speakers to campus. From members of Congress to idealist activists, their message remains unanimous: There is an unmet need for a new generation of public servants.

Each summer, DC is inundated with an influx of young student interns and staffers looking to make a difference. And while Congress remains a powerful attraction, more people are pursuing options beyond the Hill: turning down competitive government internships in favor of more fulfilling private sector opportunities. As someone who’s made this exact decision, I am a part of the problem. The decision should not come at a surprise when many congressional internships have become dreary positions filled with administrative work and little connected to professional development.

And while interning itself is a temporary commitment, the disinterest in long-term governmental work among young people is indicative of a larger problem amongst congressional staffers. Surrounded by high disapproval ratings, political gridlock, and hyper-partisanship, the frustration within government is palpable, particularly among individuals my age. The decline of faith in political institutions, combined with a growth of opportunities to enact societal change outside of government, has led to millennials choosing private-sector missions in growing numbers.

Though many of the staffing positions will have little trouble being filled, a serious underlying issue remains: are positions being filled by the most qualified candidate? Feelings of pessimism make it harder to attract young people to serve Congress, and even harder to retain them. As a result, it is difficult to generate institutional growth if each new wave of public servants view their time in our national legislature as a stepping stone to other opportunities with more meaning.

Congress is supposed to be the foundation upon which the rest of the government edifice rests. It is the first branch, and was designed to be the driving force of policymaking, the repository of national powers, and the channel of popular energy. Article I assigned Congress diverse and immense powers to govern so as to properly reflect property, people, and political communities. Congress was once the bedrock institution but has fallen victim to its vices.

Established to make policy and respond to shifting social and economic needs, our national legislature is gridlocked by ideological strife. Because of this, Congress does not offer younger candidates an environment conducive to sustainable or meaningful growth. But more than that, the inability to govern signals a lack of congressional demand for the ready supply of ideas and talent --- talent that therefore flows to workplaces off Capitol Hill.

While recent attention has been focused on President Trump’s inability to fill high-level government positions, the bigger story is that decades of disinvestment in Congress have left rampant staffing problems within its daily structure. Legislative branch staffing has not grown proportionally with the expanding size of the government or the U.S. population, which has weakened the most democratic branch of government.  

Experienced staff is a conceptual rarity. By the time congressional staffers gain a high level expertise, they’ve typically initiated the process of cycling out of the institution to pursue other prospects. The continuous influx of bright and energetic staff is not an ideal replacement for staffers with policy experience. Disinvesting in the legislative branch talent pool has lead to a dependence on external resources ---mainly interest groups--- which have smarts but inevitably have an agenda. The decay of institutional knowledge is hampering effective governance.

Congressional reform should focus on battling the external pressures and strengthening the crumbling institutional structures through an increase in motivated staff with a focus on retention. While social and political issues continue growing in complexity, Congress remains unable to properly address them. The government is responsible for processing more information than ever before, and is doing so with even fewer resources. Why should Congress continue to rely on private research, elite op-eds, and corporate lobbyists when it can strengthen itself from within?

Young professionals are demoralized by the behavior of Washington officials, but their disengagement is rooted in frustration, not apathy. It is misinformed to fault millennials for remaining unengaged in the Hill when the government itself has repeatedly and publically divested from young talent. However, without a clear solution, the dysfunctionality of Congress is condemned to further spiral. Instead, Congress should invest in creating long-term paths and educational opportunities to continuously educate staffers. This is what congressional internships should be about.

A job on the Hill should be more than a pit stop. But it won’t be until Congress reforms itself.

Megha Bhattacharya (@MeghaCBhat) is the outreach and communications policy research assistant at the R Street Institute.