The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is a dysfunctional mess. Here’s why you should want to work here anyway.

Serving as a staffer is still one of the most fascinating jobs out there.

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Four decades ago, a young Hillary Rodham Clinton, fresh out of Yale Law School, did what ambitious, civic-minded people of her generation often aspired to do: She took a job as a congressional staffer. An adviser to the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, she worked closely with chief counsel John Doar and other Democrats on legal research, messaging and strategy. It was exactly the kind of high-impact work that has long drawn the best and brightest to Capitol Hill.

Fast-forward 40 years. The Hill still offers stimulating, high-profile work. It’s possibly the only place where you can write major speeches, negotiate the contours of national policy initiatives and help design trillion-dollar budgets before you’re 30.

But for many young American go-getters, Congress is losing its luster. Staff budgets and average salaries have been declining for two decades. Our most prestigious body of public deliberation is now defined by minimal productivity, constant brinkmanship and approval ratings that stand somewhere between those of traffic jams and toxic mold spores.

This isn’t just a problem for politicians, who need good writers and strategists. It’s a problem for all of us. Congress needs to be staffed by serious, independent thinkers if it is to have any chance of withstanding the barrage of lobbyists, campaign cash and agenda-driven information. In an age when members of Congress are increasingly forced to focus on fundraising, campaigning and managing the media cycle, we need to attract the best and brightest to work as staffers on Capitol Hill to help undertake the serious work of governing.

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Congress’s declining staff capacity has its roots in the 1995 Republican takeover, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s leadership team pledged to eliminate waste and beat bureaucracy. They cut the budgets for committee staff by a third, meaning the lawyers, economists and other independent experts responsible for hearings and key legislation lost their jobs. So, too, did scores of analysts for the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service. Gingrich also eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment, the only congressional agency capable of responding to members’ requests for original scholarly research on complex issues from climate change to cyberwarfare. Congress employed 6,166 researchers in 1993, but just 4,000 in 2011.

The cuts drew criticism even from Gingrich’s own party: then-Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) declared at the time of OTA’s demise that “we are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology.” But this was only the beginning. In keeping with Gingrich’s small-government zeal, the current GOP House majority has cut staff budgets by 20 percent. Today, the legislative research agencies have 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979.

The upshot of this phenomenon — dubbed “the Congressional lobotomy” by the New America Foundation’s Lorelei Kelly — is more power for K Street. Today, industry spends more on lobbying Congress than Congress spends on all of its own staff salaries and operations. As Daniel Schuman, Lee Drutman and others have argued, the loss of experienced congressional staff, coupled with the increasing complexity of issues and the requirement for oversight of an ever-larger number of federal contractors and Executive Branch regulations means that members have to rely more and more on influence peddlers for actual technical assistance. Consider, for example, how Congress looked to bank lobbyists to write a successful 2013 budget rider to roll-back the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. Or how a defense industry lobbyist recently bragged that the House Armed Services Committed accepted “word-for-word adaptations” of their proposed language in a major bill overhauling weapons procurement.

Declining Legislative Branch capacity doesn’t just cede power to corporate lobbyists, it also undermines our constitutional system. The purpose of strong, capable congressional staff and agencies like the Office of Technology Assessment was to ensure that Congress wouldn’t have to rely on the Executive Branch for information and analysis. The founders envisioned independent branches of government that could hold each other accountable.

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How can we fix this? The best way to restore Congress’s capacity for independent thinking is, of course, to hire more good people and boost salaries so they stick around. Journalists Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards have argued that a couple of hundred million dollars to restore congressional analytical capacity — a reasonable sum in the context of a $4.8 trillion budget — could vastly improve planning, decision-making and accountability across the whole federal government. Drutman and Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University have proposed doubling the number of committee staffers, tripling the overall amount available for committee staff salaries and creating a new class of nonpartisan expert committee staff who would rotate between individual members every two years.

This could be transformative. Even if members were still fixated on serving campaign donors and party activists, trusted staff members could help build an objective base of information and analysis for sensible legislating. Given that aggregate funding for the House is $1.6 billion (less than a rounding error in the Pentagon budget) this proposal shouldn’t break the bank.

But even if we win such a breakthrough boost to staff budgets — a tall order when congressional leaders are still on a budget-cutting binge and polling majorities wrongly assume that congressional staffs are are large and growing bureaucracies — there would still be another matter to figure out: how to attract the nation’s smartest and most principled people to fill the roles. Even with a significant salary boost, it would be difficult to keep up with private-sector pay. A 2009 report by the Sunlight Foundation found that Hill staffers are paid roughly a third less than they could make with comparable skills in another sector. Television narratives about constant drama and gridlock make the prospect of low-salary toil even less alluring. Congress offers enrichment in the form of unique on-the-job training and connections, but these often only add to the opportunity costs of staying on the Hill rather than cashing out on K Street.

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So why should a talented and ambitious person work on Capitol Hill? The simple answer is that it’s still one of the most strategic ways to serve. Congress is where many of America’s most consequential questions — from the size of the defense budget to the shape of the tax code — get answered. As even a junior staffer on Capitol Hill, you’re remarkably close to the action and the decision-making power. The upshot of this isn’t just access; it’s the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. I once supervised a graduate intern, who, just weeks into her time on the Hill, pitched and designed multiple successful amendments to the Defense Department’s appropriations bill, increasing funding for support services for troops and expanding Congress’s oversight with regard to weapons transfers to foreign combatants. It’s hard to imagine another place where a newbie could have this kind of effect on account of having a good idea.

Serving on the Hill is also enriching because of the diversity of issues, ideas and personalities. In an age of ever-increasing technical specialization, a job in a member’s office is a rare opportunity to be a useful generalist. When I worked as legislative director for a senior Democrat, a single morning might involve investigating options for dealing with home foreclosures, drafting letters to federal agencies in support of refugees from the Middle East and meetings with environmental activists on a new Environmental Protection Agency regulation. It was an opportunity to see interdisciplinary patterns and trends and think holistically about where government and society are headed. This kind of orientation is important when the big issues of the day — such as climate change, job creation, and countering violent extremism — defy the old disciplinary and jurisdictional boundaries.

The same kind of eclecticism is also an asset in terms of the culture of Capitol Hill. While Congress’s huge ideological chasm is usually perceived as a problem, the diversity of worldviews and backgrounds all compressed in one place feels like something that the founders intended: everyone from Southern social conservatives to San Francisco Democratic Socialists converging on the same cafeterias, bars and barber shops. Important intellectual cross-pollination takes place each and every day.

In short, the advantages of working on the Hill go beyond the marble columns, famous faces and free buffets at industry-sponsored evening receptions. The kinds of opportunities that drew Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Hill 40 years ago are still present today.