Convincing evidence that congressional staff do, in fact, matter

Staff matter, yet their pay keeps going down. Source: Josh McCrain.

Staff matter, yet their pay keeps going down. Source: Josh McCrain.

By Josh McCrain

Observers and behind-the-scenes practitioners on Capitol Hill understand and appreciate the vital role filled by staffers in the day-to-day functioning of Congress. To date, however, research on Congress has not studied the specific, observable impacts of staff on congressional policymaking. A recently published paper in the Journal of Politics by political scientists Jacob Montgomery and Brendan Nyhan is one of the first studies to empirically quantify the effects of staff on legislator behavior – and their findings have important implications for understanding how Congress works.

The authors couch their study within a large – but older – political science literature that developed during the 1970s and 1980s, when Congress appropriated itself drastic increases in staff resources. This literature found staff to be important players with substantial (perhaps too much) independence in the policymaking process. Since the 1980s, however, staffing levels have decreased just as drastically, reaching a nadir in the 2000s. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas document these trends, and potential implications, here.

If we are to believe this trend has troubling implications related to questions of diminished capacity, then there must be observable impacts by staff on the legislative process. Montgomery and Nyhan provide convincing evidence that staff do, in fact, matter.

They argue that staff provide information and expertise to their bosses, and when they leave one office for another they a) bring their specific skillsets to the new office and b) create linkages (networks) between these offices. Employing this idea, they find members who are connected to each other through sharing senior staff (i.e., a senior staffer from one office moves to another office) are more likely to resemble each other in effectiveness and ideological alignment than we would otherwise expect.


Source: Montgomery and Nyhan JOP paper. Members of the Democratic party are in black and the Republican party in white. Note there are no linkages between parties.

To check the robustness of their results, they test whether shared junior staff have substantial influence on observable policy making and find no effect.  The implications of this research are important. As the authors conclude, “Despite their low public profile, staff play a key role in the operations of Congress and the parties, especially in facilitating the flow of expertise and policy information among members.” At the very least, this is suggestive evidence that normative questions related to diminished legislative capacity are justified.

Extending this logic, it is not a stretch to imagine that other traits of staff affect congressional policymaking in other important and observable ways. In a new working paper, for instance, I find that variation in staff experience influences a legislator’s productivity. Similarly, this research speaks to recent work (highlighted here) on the revolving door – if staff affect the legislative process in these important and observable ways, it is not surprising their experience is highly valued in the private sector.

Joshua McCrain is a PhD student in political science at Emory University. You can find him on Twitter @joshmccrain.