Walter Pincus recently charged that the "reform" of congressional staffs in the past 10 years has "created a growing, exorbitantly paid Capitol Hill bureaucracy? ["Congress: Too Much Staff," op-ed, Aug. 16]. He goes on to blame the growth of this "bureaucracy" for the growth of big government, as staff aides crank out more and more legislation to justify their positions and salaries.
I disagree with that analysis. The proliferation of staff on Capitol Hill is not a cause of big government but a consequence. And far from being an elite corps of highly-paid bureaucrats, most congressional staff work is purely clerical, done by people who are far from overpaid.
In the first place, consider the fact that the U.S. population has grown enormously in the past 50 years, while the number of congressmen and senators has been basically fixed. The number of congressmen has been fixed at 435 since 1910 while the number of senators was fixed at 96 through most of this century and only increased to 100 with the admission of Hawaii and Alaska to the Union.
Thus, in 1910, each congressman represented approximately 212,000 people and each senator represented about a million people. Today, each congressman represents more than 500,000 people and each senator represents more than 2 million people. This growth of constituents alone explains much of the growth of staff.
Consider also that the growth of government departments, agencies and bureaus at all levels now brings the average person in contact with his government to a much greater degree than ever before. For example, in 1940, there were only 331,000 people receiving Social Security benefits. In 1976, there were almost 21 million. Thus one might say that in 1940 each congressman represented only 761 Social Security recipients but today represents 48,000.
Since a considerable portion of any congressman or senator's staff is engaged in such mundane tasks as helping constituents straighten out problems with the executive branch bureaucracy (i.e., casework) one can justify a considerable increase in staff on this ground alone. Indeed, many political scientists, such as Morris Florina, argue that congressmen are little more than "ombudsmen" for their constituents today, helping them deal with their government.
Another consideration is that the growth of staff in the legislative branch has been less than that in the executive branch. Since 1940, total employment in the executive branch has increased 174 percent, while increasing only 128 percent in the legislative branch. Moreover, one should keep in mind that legislative branch employment includes the Library of Congress, the General Accounting Office, portions of the Government Printing Office and numerous support positions, like the Capitol Police Force, which are not really part of the congressional staff that Mr. Incus is concerned about.
In short, I feel that the growth of congressional staff is a necessary response and corrective to the problems associated with an increasing population and the increasing pervasiveness of government in the lives of the people. It is extremely important to remember that congressional staffs serve solely at the prerogative of the congressman, senator and committee they work for. There is no civil service on Capitol Hill. This also applies to salaries, which are set by the individual legislator or committee. There are no automatic pay raises, set pay scales or set hours on Capitol Hill, and certainly no job security. As a result, working conditions vary enormously from one office to another. Some people are overpaid, but most are underpaid when one considers the amount of work most staff do and the number of hours they work compared with those in the executive branch of the private sector.
The importance of having such a system for employing congressional staff is that it means a congressman or senator's staff people remain under effective political control. They must stay responsive to the needs of their constituents just as elected officials must. By contrast, executive branch "bureaucrats" are answerable to no one. So when a constituent runs up against the bureaucracy, to whom can he turn except his congressman or senator?
Mr. Pincus is justified in his concern for the growth of big government bureaucracy, but he should be more aware of who his allies are. The next time he comes up against a surly bureaucrat or finds a government regulation intruding on his life, he may be very happy to find someone on his congressman's or senator's staff who is willing to help him when no one else will.