(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Casey Burgat is a Governance Project fellow with the R Street Institute.

There is a common perception shared by those most familiar with Congress that lawmakers’ offices are staffed with inexperienced aides who quickly grow weary of life on Capitol Hill and leave their jobs. Staff turnover in Congress is thought to be such a problem that one congressional reporter concluded, “The most powerful nation on Earth is run largely by 24-year olds.”

So these observers warn that much of the work done in lawmakers’ offices — including policymaking — is carried out by inexpert staffers who are soon to leave. In the words of one former Hill lawyer, “The experienced staff aren’t there,” ostensibly because they flee too quickly, leaving members of Congress with minimal institutional memory to execute the many and varied duties of their elected offices.

Many of the reasons staffers leave Congress are well documented, often by aides who have served: Pay is low, stress is high, hours are long, opportunities for advancement are minimal. Experience in a lawmaker’s office is often viewed as a steppingstone to more lucrative private-sector jobs as aides look to leverage their Hill connections and become peddlers of special interests after short stays in Congress. The feared “revolving door” between Congress and lobbying shops isn’t used only by lawmakers — staffers walk through it, too.

But while tenures for staffers are on the whole rather short, the problem of turnover may not be as pervasive as people think. Using publicly available compensation records for every congressional staffer, cleaned and verified by LegiStorm, a congressional research firm, I calculated turnover rates for each member of the House of Representatives from 2001 through 2017.

The findings were encouraging and disheartening at the same time. Annual turnover in the House overall is lower than in virtually any private-sector industry and in most other government jobs. And yet, in some offices, turnover is regularly quite high — and often an indicator of problems in the workplace.

Despite all the cautions from observers, House turnover rates remained remarkably stable during the period I studied. On average, 18.5 percent of House staffers vacate their office in a given year, with very little deviation or differences by political party. This stability is supported by evidence that staffer tenures are getting a bit longer for a few positions and remaining steady for most, though the average number of years served is still strikingly low. Turnover of 18.5 percent is on the low end of separation rates within other industries. In fact, it is right on par with government separation rates (18.3 percent) at large and is actually lower than state and local government services, excluding education (20.6 percent).

But some lawmakers have much higher separation rates than the average, sometimes nearing a proportion of 1, which means the entire office turns over in a year. It is in these instances, where turnover rates are far above the norm, where the true problem of congressional staff turnover lies.

A closer look at the data reveals it’s often the same few representatives whose offices regularly see turnover proportions far above those of their colleagues. The steady overall turnover stats hide a few outlier offices that consistently churn through aides. Some representatives consistently have turnover rates higher than one standard deviation over the norm, which effectively translates into turnover higher than 84 percent of other House members.

Table 1: House Turnover Rates, 2001-2017
Representative Name % of Years Above 1 SD Years Above 1 SD Years in Sample Average Turnover Rate
Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) 0.86 6 7 0.37
Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) 0.86 6 7 0.38
Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) 0.8 4 5 0.35
Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) 0.71 5 7 0.3
Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) 0.71 5 7 0.31
Karen Bass (D-Calif.) 0.71 5 7 0.29
Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) 0.69 9 13 0.3
Pete Olson (R-Tex.) 0.67 6 9 0.3
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) 0.65 11 17 0.32
Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) 0.64 7 11 0.38
Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) 0.6 3 5 0.26
Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) 0.6 3 5 0.31
Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) 0.57 4 7 0.27
David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) 0.57 4 7 0.27
Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) 0.56 5 9 0.3
Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) 0.53 9 17 0.3
Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) 0.5 3 6 0.26
Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) 0.5 3 6 0.29
Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) 0.5 3 6 0.31
Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) 0.47 7 15 0.35
Notes: Representatives in BOLD are active members. Sample was limited to those who have served a minimum of five years in the House to better identify turnover patterns.

Even for those who don’t live and breathe Congress, many names on the list of offices with the highest turnover will be familiar — mostly for the wrong reasons. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), for example, resigned in April after it was discovered that taxpayers funded the settlement of a 2014 sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit. Not only was his average staff turnover rate one of the highest in the chamber during his tenure, it was among the highest in the House in six of the seven years he served. Likewise, despite his staunch pro-life stance, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) resigned last year after urging his mistress to get an abortion. In seven of his 15 years in the House, Murphy’s turnover rates were also among the highest in the chamber. And, of course, Anthony Weiner’s transgressions are infamous. In seven of the 11 years he served in Congress during the time I studied, his office’s turnover rate was significantly higher than average.

For those more plugged into day-to-day life on the Hill, these findings are likely to corroborate many water-cooler conversations about their bosses. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), for instance, has been voted the “meanest” member of the House by congressional staffers, and she leads the House in the number of years when her office’s level of staff turnover was among the highest in the chamber. Others with high turnover have other issues: Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) will probably face a House Ethics Committee investigation for alleged staff pay violations. Four of Schweikert’s seven years in the House had higher-than-average turnover. And it’s been reported that Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) has used his aides as “personal servants” to drive his daughters and clean up after his dog. Though his time in Congress is too short to make this list, Garrett had the fifth-highest staff turnover in 2017.

High turnover doesn’t always presage bad news: One member on the list, Mike Pompeo, left Congress to become CIA director and is now secretary of state.

But the correlation between high turnover and lawmakers who are later in serious trouble is too strong to ignore. As recent reports have shown, high rates of staff turnover for particular lawmakers can indicate that they may be disastrously bad bosses. Indeed, a bevy of terrifying human resource stories coming out of a certain office also often coincides with a large number of departing staff members.

These high rates of staff turnover, particularly if they are high year after year, are often a signal of an exceptionally trying work environment and bad management practices from which aides quickly depart. Consistently large numbers of fleeing staffers are often a harbinger of true office dysfunction. Enough stories have taught us that if large numbers of staffers are regularly fleeing the same office year after year, we should be asking why.

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