How do congressional committee staff turnover rates compare to personal staff turnover?

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By Casey Burgat

Congressional committees are typically thought of as bastions of policy expertise, where committed aides dive deep into the wonkery of narrow issue areas and make careers on Capitol Hill. After all, committees are fairly well insulated from the barrage of constituent  requests and electoral and messaging considerations that inundate the personal offices of Representatives and Senators.

But, do these features of committee life mean that committee aides are less likely to turnover than their colleagues in House and Senate personal offices?

Relying on disbursement data from the House of Representatives and Senate, cleaned and verified by LegiStorm, a new LegBranch.com analysis reveals which congressional committees experienced highest and lowest staff turnover rates in 2017. This snapshot analysis is part of a larger (forthcoming) project on congressional staff turnover that includes over 15 years worth of data. Previous LegBranch.com reports documented 2017 turnover rates for staffers in House and Senate personal offices.

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What do the data show?

Turnover rates used in this analysis were constructed by dividing the number of staff that left a particular committee (either voluntarily or involuntarily) by the total number of staff the committee employed during the year. The median level of staff turnover in Senate committees for 2017 was 21.5 percent (compared to a median of 16.9 percent for individual Senators’ personal offices). On the House side, the median committee turnover was remarkably similar at 21.4 percent (compared to 18.5 percent for Representatives’ personal offices). Contrary to anecdotal expectations, turnover rates for committee aides, on average, were higher than for staff in personal offices in both chambers.

The Senate Appropriations and House Rules committees were the most stable committee offices in each chamber, with 7 percent and 8 percent of staff turning over in 2017. The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (50 percent) and the House Natural Resources Committee (31.8 percent) led their respective chambers with the highest proportion of staff turning over within the year.

Interestingly, House committees had more limited variation in staff turnover compared to the Senate with a standard deviation of 6.4 percent in the House and 10.3 percent in the Senate. In fact, no House committee experienced more than one-third of its staff turning over, while three Senate committees did (Rules and Administration, Judiciary, and Small Business). Again, this bucks the conventional wisdom that the Senate provides a more stable work environment, where aides stay longer because they are more likely to have an impact on policy outcomes. (Though, some argue and find that the longer tenures and wider networks that come with Senate service are more attractive to staffers seeking private sector employment---a fact that could help explain higher Senate committee turnover rates.)

The charts above, and corresponding tables below, show the committees in both chambers with the lowest and highest levels of staff turnover in 2017. Additionally, the tables show the number and percentages of staff that departed a committee, but remained working in Congress (i.e., left one committee and joined a member’s office or a different  committee). This measure provides a deeper look at intra-office environments in that it highlights the committees whose departing staff decided to continue working in Congress versus those who decided to leave the institution altogether.

House and Senate Committee Staff Turnover - Quick Tidbits

  • Of the 10 committees with the highest staff turnover rates, seven are Senate committees.

  • The House and Senate each had five committees in the top 10 most stable.

  • Senate Rules had the highest turnover rate in Congress at 50 percent; House Rules on the other hand, had the second-lowest rate in Congress at 8 percent.

  • Both chambers’ intelligence committees (House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence) and foreign policy committees (House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations) were among the most stable five committees within each chamber.

  • Eleven percent of House committee staffers departed one committee but found another job on the Hill; 14 percent of Senate aides did the same.

  • Of committee staffers who departed, 63 percent of them from each chamber found another job in Congress (yes, these numbers are exactly the same for the House and Senate). For comparison, 44 percent of House personal staffers found another job on the Hill after departing their member’s office, while 69 percent of Senate staffers stayed in Congress.

Tables 1 and 2 below depict the Senate and House committees with the highest and lowest staff turnover rates. Included in the tables are the number of staff employed and the number of departing aides, excluding interns, fellows, part-time, and temporary employees.

Table 1. 2017 Turnover Rates, Senate Committees

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Table 2. 2017 Turnover Rates, House Committees

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Notes on methodology:

  • Turnover rates are calculated by dividing the number of staff who departed a committee during 2017 by the number of staff who received payment from a specific committee at any point during the 2017 calendar year.

  • This analysis does not include interns, fellows, part-time, or temporary staffers.

  • This analysis makes no determination as to whether staffers departed a committee voluntarily or involuntarily. As such, conclusions as to whether turnover levels were the result of nefarious or unfriendly work conditions should be kept to a minimum.

Casey Burgat is a Governance Project fellow with the R Street Institute.