The piece by Mark Bisnow on the problem of congressional staff {"Memo to Congress: Fire Half Your Staff," Outlook, Jan. 17} was filled with assertions that are exaggerated or just plain wrong. It would appear that this journeyman staffer (nine jobs in 13 years) never stayed anywhere long enough to understand how things really work.

His analysis has many flaws, but it is instructive to look at his solution to the "problem." Mr. Bisnow calls Hill staff "agents of conflict and impasse" (mercy!) and would reduce their ranks by 50 percent, from 20,000 to 10,000. (The corporate corollary would be to solve General Motors' problems by reducing the labor force by 50 percent.)

Let's assume Mr. Bisnow would fire about 5,000 people each from the Senate and the House, but would protect committee staff (about 1,300 in the Senate) and clerical employees. There are about 4,000 employees on the personal staffs of the 100 senators -- 40 per senator. About one-third work in the home state. Most offices have six to 10 "legislative assistants" (LAs), the policy advisers who help senators develop positions, make decisions, draft speeches and fight legislative battles. These are Mr. Bisnow's villains (ironically, their ranks have grown sharply since the mid-70s to counter the perceived concentration of power in committee staffs).

If every senator had 10 LAs, and you fired every one, you would eliminate 1,000 people, or 20 percent of Bisnow's Senate target. If you fired all 4,000 personal staff members, you would still be 1,000 people short. Then you could go after the police, the gardeners, the custodial personnel and the Senate day care center staff.

Most Hill staff members would agree that sometimes "other staff" do create difficulties for their respective institutions. But anyone who believes that the staff run the show, or are the root of congressional problems, is naive and probably envious of staff with real clout. Senators and representatives really are in charge, even though they depend on, listen to, counsel with and delegate responsibility to their staffs in carrying out their duties.



The writer has been a Senate staff member for 11 years.