Staffers handle most of the basic tasks of lawmaking: research, scheduling, communications, speech writing, writing legislation language, and even negotiation. Former senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) often quipped that “senators were a constitutional impediment to the smooth functioning of staff.”
Congress itself determines how much money to spend on staff when it creates a budget. For example, all members are given a fixed stipend through which they can hire their personal staff. Countless scholars, members and observers of Congress have documented the dwindling resources available to member and committee staffs, and to support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service, Government Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office. Office budgets will likely remain flat in the next fiscal year as well.
Using new data from Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we suggest that the reason may be twofold: First, most of the public doesn’t know how much the legislative staff does. And second, members routinely run against “Washington,” which includes the bureaucrats and government employees who enable Congress to do its work.
So who’s left making policy? Lobbyists and interest groups, who are happy to fill in for free.
So what if Congress cuts its staff?
Cuts to staff resources kill morale and increase turnover. A 2013 report from the Congressional Management Foundation, which surveyed legislative staffers, found that nearly half of all respondents were looking for another job in the next year. When restricted to the D.C.-based staffers who are closest to policymaking, this number rose to 63 percent. By contrast, only 37 percent of U.S. employees at large are looking for jobs. Low pay was one of the main reasons.
Here’s the problem for the citizenry: Turnover in congressional staff cuts off institutional memory and forces skilled staffers to train their new colleagues—thereby cutting back Congress’s ability to get anything useful done.
Congress isn’t just cutting these resources. Its members are redistributing them away from lawmaking and out toward the care and feeding of voters. As we documented previously, Congress has consistently shifted staff from D.C. to members’ district offices. This means fewer resources for D.C. staff—who are more likely to work on policy than on constituent relations.
Lee Drutman and Steven Teles (among others) argue that when Congress lacks experienced staffers, members must rely on interest groups for information and policy suggestions. Stories of lobbyist influence are common. Recently, a defense contractor lobbyist claimed that a bill revising rules for how the Pentagon procures weapons included “word-for-word adaptations” of the lobbyist’s suggested language. In 2013, it was widely reported that language rolling back consumer protections was written by the banks themselves. Drutman also reports that spending on lobbying has actually outpaced spending by Congress on itself. Others have argued that diminished congressional capacity has led to more pronounced roles for the executive and judicial branches.
So why is Congress cannibalizing itself? Probably because that’s popular with voters. Decades ago, a study conducted by Hibbing and Thiess-Morse revealed that the public was both critical and misinformed about legislative staff. Roughly 75 percent of those surveyed supported cutting the size of congressional personal staff; their estimates of congressional staff levels were approximately half of reality. New data presented below suggests that that those ideas and expectations remain today.
Using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “There are too many staffers or assistants in Congress.” Of the nearly 1,000 respondents, 32.87 percent selected “don’t know.” Of the rest, 91.79 percent agreed with the statement. And respondents greatly underestimated true staff levels with a median estimate of about 10 —nearly half the maximum number allowed to House members.
Nor do Americans realize that committee staffs and budgets have been slashed. When asked how the size of congressional staff has changed over the last twenty years, roughly a quarter said they didn’t know. Of those who remained, only 2.27 percent thought staff had decreased—while the vast majority, 85.1 percent, thought that staff had grown. Responses about staff budgets were comparable. Perhaps even more surprising is that people were generally antagonistic toward congressional staff, no matter what their ideology.
The future: More of the same
Will congressional staff continue to diminish — in numbers, resources, and pay? It sure looks that way. In addition to being excluded from the new overtime pay rules, in March 2015, a Senate majority cast a non-binding vote in favor of the controversial Vitter Amendment. If it were to become law, it would effectively bar the federal government from making contributions to staffers’ health-care premiums. A former Republican staffer called the proposal as a “big middle finger to folks who give up their entire lives for what is now a very crappy job.”
Congress has historically increased and reorganized its professional staff support to meet new demands. While increases are costly, staff expenditures can often save money in the long run. For example, dollars spent on the General Accounting Office, or GAO, which provides Congress with evaluations of government performance, can actually save taxpayers money by eliminating of waste, fraud, duplication, and inefficiencies.
Perhaps more important, the American taxpayer may never know the cost of having special interest lobbyists help write tax and other legislation. But unless someone runs a national educational campaign about your friendly Washington bureaucrats, that’s unlikely to change. As former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) once said, “I don’t think the American people understand what a bargain they get with the people who work on our staffs, who are so talented and hard-working and could make a great deal more money elsewhere but really put in very, very long hours under difficult circumstances.”
Anthony Madonna is an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia and can be found on Twitter @TonyMadonna5. Ian Ostrander is an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University. Both authors served as 2012-2013 American Political Science Association Congressional Fellows in Washington.