from the hill

Congressional Offices: Understaffed, Underfunded, Underperforming

In an effort to decrease the intense staff turnover and declining policy expertise on the Hill, five long-time Congressional observers sent a letter to House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, urging them to create a Joint Committee on the Capacity of Congress “to examine and improve congressional operation, which is suffering from understaffing and underfunding.”

The letter pointed to significant problems with staffing, noting that the U.S. House employed 9,175 individuals as of 2014 which is “fewer than the 9,341 individuals the U.S. House employed in 1980 – when the demands on Congress were far less.” Meanwhile, Senate staffing levels have increased from 3,913 to 5,758 during this time period, though the majority of that increase came between 1980 and 1994.

Additionally, House and Senate have been decreasing the number of staff devoted to policy, employing more staff positions to handle constituent and press work.

Most notably, the letter points out, are the declines in committee staff. The authors of the letter write:

“This is particularly problematic, because committees are where the substantive work of policy development and oversight happen. The declines in committee staffing have been especially striking in the House, where committees are now at about half of their 1980 staffing levels.”

The letter also cited the decline in average salaries in constant dollars. Average counsel, legislative director and legislative assistant salaries in both the House and Senate dropped by a range of 9 percent to 20 percent from 2009 to 2013.

“Congress has been doing government on the cheap for decades. And we get what we pay for.”

Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center told Government Executive that the decline in congressional staff expertise has a negative effect on many agencies.

“If you’re on the Hill and have a question and don’t know the answer, rather than dig into it, it’s much easier to say, ‘Let’s let the agencies deal with it,’ ” McGhee said. “They then get political credit for addressing the issue without having to do any of the work, and the agencies spend enormous amounts of staff time responding to these mandated reports.”

The other signatories of the letter include: Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow in New America’s political reform program; Kevin Kosar, Senior Fellow and Governance Project Director at the R Street Institute; Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution; and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The letter recommended that a new Joint Committee on Congressional Capacity “review the staffing levels of Congress, with special attention to congressional committees, as well as review the current salary levels and to make recommendations on the appropriate staffing levels of member and committee offices and on how to attract and retain professional staff.”

 

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