Are Underqualified Congressional Staff Impeding Oversight, Wasting Agencies' Time?

Architect of the Capitol

Heavy turnover and declining policy expertise among congressional staff risk weakening the system of checks and balances with the executive branch while wasting agency time, according to a group of legislative branch experts.

In a March 9 letter to House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders and committee chairmen, five long-time observers of Congress asked lawmakers to form a Joint Committee on the Capacity of Congress “to examine and improve congressional operation, which is suffering from understaffing and underfunding.”

As of 2014, the U.S. House employed 9,175 individuals (along with 435 Members), the letter noted. “That is fewer than the 9,341 individuals the U.S. House employed in 1983 – when the demands on Congress were far less.” The Senate has increased its staffing levels from 3,913 to 5,758 during this time period, though almost all of that increase came between 1980 and 1994, when the Senate had 5,476 staff positions.

Salaries in constant dollars for the average counsel, legislative director and legislative assistant positions in the House and Senate dropped by a range of 9 percent to 20 percent from 2009 to 2013, the letter said.

“This lack of internal capacity empowers lobbyists since they are who the staff turn to for policy expertise,” wrote the five signatories: Lee Drutman, senior fellow in New America’s political reform program; Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center; Kevin Kosar, senior fellow and governance project director at the libertarian R Street Institute; Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution; and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

“Congress has been doing government on the cheap for decades. And we get what we pay for,” the letter said. By failing to address the staffing and salary issues, “Congress has dangerously undermined its ability to be a check and a balance on the executive branch,” the letter stated. “Many members of Congress spend considerable time complaining about the expanding power of the executive branch. But without adequate capacity to perform comprehensive oversight, current Republican frustration over executive branch activity has largely been constrained to a handful of high-profile theatrics.”

McGehee said low pay on Capitol Hill increases turnover. “Too often, going to work on the Hill is seen as a way to get your ticket punched on your way to a lucrative career on K Street,” she said.

"With the looming specter of a Trump presidency,” Drutman added, “the case for building congressional capacity has never been stronger. Congress is the first branch of government, and the natural check on a dangerous executive.”

The letter recommended that a new Joint Committee on Congressional Capacity review and give advice on staffing levels for committees and personal offices, provide guidance to Members on regularizing staff pay and hold public hearings with experts on staffing and pay.

The decline in congressional staff expertise has a negative effect on many agencies, McGehee told Government Executive, citing the “amount of time the executive branch spends on worthless reports. 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,’ ” she added. “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.”

McGehee called for a return to the days when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had a nonpartisan staff that stayed for years. “In this era of extreme partisanship, dragging executive branch folks up for a hearing to make political points is a waste of the taxpayers’ dime,” she said. Many today view oversight as “just another arrow in the quiver of partisan bickering, but that is not what most observers of Congress think of as true oversight.”

Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, agreed that Congress underpays its staff and burdens agencies by failing to pass timely budgets. Citing his group’s September 2015 report “Government Disservice,” he said, “In this immensely complicated world, to understand what’s happening at agencies, you need real expertise.”

Yet many Members—particularly the rising percentage who are rookies in Congress—don’t take the time to delve into agency issues. They see their “own staff as their primary resource point and have to rely on the knowledge base of that staff to a great extent. Investing in a robust staff is vital,” Stier said. “It’s not just about the numbers, but ensuring people are well trained, and well led.”

To attract the best longer-term “mission-oriented” employees who wish to make a difference on Capitol Hill, Congress should confront its pay issues, Stier said. Working on the Hill “shouldn’t be hardship duty.”

The problems of heavy staff turnover and a rise in rookie lawmakers are clear to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a 24-year House member who previously spent five years as a chief of staff to a senator. He told Government Executive he gets by with far fewer staffers despite more committee responsibilities in today’s Congress. “The problem now is with so many new members, they lack institutional knowledge, which in the past they were able to get from staff,” he said. 

Today’s constant threat to members “with any experience” of being challenged in a primary means that, “when members go, the staffs are gone too. I’m very concerned,” he said.

Under pressure to conserve resources now, Mica recalls the days when he had “the very best senior qualified staff with incredible credentials. But almost all have fled the Hill because the outside pays more. The turnover and some of [the partisan] turmoil is taking its toll,” he added. It leaves the bureaucrats with the upper hand.”

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