How committee staffers clear the runway for legislative action in Congress

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By Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt

Admittedly, the audience at this spring’s “The State of Congressional Capacity Conference” was a receptive one. Congressional scholars from across the country gathered and presented research asking and answering questions as to whether Congress has the capacity -- the technology, staff, and other internal resources -- to effectively do its job in our system of separated powers. As one might expect from such a workshop, there was almost unanimous agreement among attendees that Congress has not invested in itself nearly enough to play the role expected of it.

Our contribution to the conference aligns with these expectations, focusing specifically on committee staff within the House of Representatives from 2001-2016. Our research shows that committees during this period are more successful in producing legislative outputs -- reporting important legislation, voting out substantive bills that ultimately pass the chamber, and holding committee hearings -- when they have more staff support. The bumper sticker version: More staff = more legislative outputs in committees.

But wait...there’s more!

In addition to the total number of committee aides, we find the type of committee aides matter at different stages of a committee’s work. We suggest committee aides are too often thought of as a singular type of staffer and have relatively equal responsibilities and impacts on committee activities. They aren’t and they don’t. Depending on their responsibilities and diverse expertise, committee aides differ in when, and in what way, their impacts are felt most.

More staff = more outputs

It shouldn’t come as a big shock that committees are able to produce more when they enjoy more total staffing resources. After all, committee aides are known for their policy expertise and experience working on issue areas within their respective committees’ jurisdiction. It stands to reason greater staff availability in a committee will result in more and better legislation being produced.

We find exactly this. Using stringent and incredibly nerdy statistical tests including a host of important control variables, our results show that a 50 percent increase in committee staff support translates into a 25 percent increase in the number of important bills being reported out of that committee, and a 19 percent increase in the number of important bills originating in that committee passed by the House. What’s more, a similar increase in staff predicts an 18 percent increase in the number of hearings held by a committee, another crucial committee output. In a congressional environment known for its historic inaction, these are significant increases. (Plus, this finding is in line with Austin Bussing’s recent post that finds committees with larger staff sizes relative to the number of members are less likely to delegate legislative decision making authority to the executive branch.)

Not all committee staff are created equal

We also find that the type of committee staffer impacts these committee outputs differently. Though often grouped together, committee aides vary considerably in their job titles and responsibilities. Some are tasked with policy duties, such as researching and authoring legislative proposals for committee consideration; others are responsible for carrying out a communications strategy for the committee to present its work to interested parties; still others serve as leaders overseeing the staff, overall direction and political strategy, responsible for facilitating progress on committee priorities with outside actors.

Along with these occupational differences, committee staffers are demonstrably diverse in their respective personal and occupational experience as well as their levels of legislative and procedural expertise. Some are legal and oversight experts with long tenures at federal agencies and others serve with over a decade of congressional experience and a mastery in parliamentary procedure. Conducting a fruitful committee oversight investigation requires a vastly different set of skills than authoring legislative proposals, and negotiating the scope of a committee hearing utilizes different talents than building coalitions for ultimate passage on the floor.

In short, staffers are valuable in their respective roles, but they are valuable on different tasks and at different times. For example, the number of policy aides -- staffers with clear policy-related titles such as Legislative Director or Policy Advisor -- greatly impact the number of important bills being reported out of committee (duh!). But, the number of policy staffers on a committee have a negligible impact on such important bills being passed by the chamber and the number of hearings held, likely because these outputs require more political rather than policy maneuvering; thus, a committee’s policy aides lose their influence as the life cycle of a committee proposal progresses.

Instead, we find it is the number of senior staffers on a committee -- largely Staff Directors and Legislative Directors -- that are essential in getting the bills researched and authored by policy aides passed by the entire chamber. We argue that senior staffers, by virtue of their job responsibilities in leading the committee as well as their longer congressional tenures, are best able to interpret the policy and political wants of the committee’s members and facilitate passage coalitions to usher committee-reported legislative proposals to being passed by the House. Interestingly, we also find that more senior staffers on a committee significantly increases the number of hearings a committee holds each year, again likely due to their enhanced abilities to organize interests both inside and outside the chamber to satisfy policy, political, and communications desires of committee leaders and members.

Very few, especially within the friendly conference room at the Congressional Capacity Conference, disagree with the importance of congressional staff, particularly those with the greatest issue expertise who support congressional committee functions. But, we argue simple staff counts are missing a big piece of the picture in how aides influence the policy production within their respective offices. Based on our findings, any conversation discussing the impacts of staffing resources should also consider that committees execute on their key functions most efficiently when equipped with the right staff, at the right time.

Casey Burgat (@CaseyBurgat) is a Governance Fellow at the R Street Institute. Charles Hunt (@CharlesRHunt) is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park.