By Casey Burgat
Which House members churned through employees in 2017 and which retained staff at a higher rate than their colleagues?
Relying on disbursement data from the House of Representatives, cleaned and verified by LegiStorm, a new LegBranch analysis reveals which Representatives led offices with the highest and lowest staff turnover rates in 2017. This snapshot analysis is part of a larger (forthcoming) project on Hill staff turnover that includes over 15 years worth of data. 2017 turnover rates for every House member will be released next week.
Why does staff turnover matter?
Though Hill staff often remain anonymous to even the most watchful congressional observers, members of Congress rely heavily on them to execute the policy and representational work for which their offices are responsible. Staff in district and Hill offices are largely responsible for the day-to-day work of handling constituent requests, researching, drafting, and advancing policy, and running effective communications operations on behalf of their bosses.
Put simply, staff matter. The level of staff turnover in a member’s office can have serious consequences on a lawmaker’s ability to fulfill his or her representational and policy duties. High levels of staff turnover can decrease the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire office. Replacing staff requires that office attention be spent interviewing, hiring, and training new staff rather than on constituency service or policy. As private sector studies have regularly found, high employee turnover disrupts office divisions of labor, depresses morale, and undermines continuity of operations.
What’s more, Hill staff often develop and maintain expertise in a given role or on specific policy matters; when the office loses that expertise, the whole enterprise suffers from the departure of institutional memory.
What do the data show?
Turnover rates used in this analysis were constructed by dividing the number of staff that left a particular office (either voluntarily or involuntarily) by the total number of staff the office employed during the year. The median level of staff turnover for 2017 was 18.75 percent. Representatives who left Congress during 2017, and thus experienced 100 percent staff turnover, were not included in the analysis.
The chart above shows the House members with the lowest and highest levels of staff turnover in 2017. Reps. Kelly Butterfield, Cicilline, Davis, Van Hollen, and LaMalfa led the most stable House office with only a single aide (5.55 percent turnover) departing during 2017. Rep. Ruthfus’s (R-PA) office experienced the highest level of staff turnover with 50 percent of his aides departing in a single year. Fifty Representatives had turnover rates above 35 percent in 2017, a pace that would result in the entire office turning over in just a three year span.
Variations in the data by party and member gender
Nine of the 12 most stable House offices are held by Democrats. On the other end of the turnover spectrum, 11 of the 14 offices with the highest staff turnover are Republican.
Of course, much of the turnover found in Republican offices can likely be attributed to the Trump administration hiring veteran Republican staff off the Hill to help fill White House and federal agency positions. But, as revolving door research suggests, higher turnover in Republican offices could also be due to majority-party staff cashing in on their connections and moving to positions with businesses and other special interest organizations.
Women lawmakers lead offices with higher turnover. Female members represent 19.3 percent of House lawmakers, yet lead eight percent of the 21 offices (38 percent) with the highest rates of staff turnover. Conversely, female members represent only one of the 12 (8.3 percent) offices with the lowest turnover rates. More research is needed to ascertain the individual motives of staffers departing women-led offices at much higher rates than their male counterparts.
And important to note, not all turnover is bad. Offices should look to replace poorly performing staff and the addition of new people can bring fresh perspectives and more efficient operations.
But given the degree to which members of Congress heavily rely on their staff, and the growing concern among some congressional observers that Congress is increasingly run by young (and often inexperienced) staff, data on turnover rates are particularly relevant. Offices that experience higher rates of turnover, especially in higher level positions, will generally be less effective in providing constituent service and affecting public policy. Offices with more turnover are also more likely to turn to lobbyists and special interests to fill the information void left by departing staff.
High levels of turnover can raise many concerns and almost none of them are good. Working in Congress can be unrewarding. Hill jobs have limited opportunities for advancement, yet typically require staff to work long hours in a high pressure atmosphere characterized by ongoing political brinkmanship. Financial compensation for staff is low compared to many private sector jobs. Additionally, civic-minded staff are growing more and more frustrated by their inability to help develop and advance policy, as an increasing amount of policy-making is being done by party leaders with little input from the rank-and-file and their staffs. The environment is one where staff are sometimes treated horribly, as the growing number of cases of sexual harassment by members reveals.
We should want our best and brightest serving in the offices of our elected officials. Congress, lawmakers, and constituents are better served by Hill staff who find their work fulfilling and choose to stay beyond just a few years.
Casey Burgat is a Governance Project fellow with the R Street Institute.