Congress Cut Its Own Budget. What Happened Next Will Not Restore Your Faith in Government.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Behind every member of Congress is a small cadre of staffers, without whom lawmakers' jobs would be impossible. They craft legislation, are experts in arcane policy, maintain hectic schedules, and help ensure that constituents get served by the government they pay for.

But cuts to office budgets—down 20 percent over the past three years alone—and changes to employee health care, along with near-constant threats of furloughs and shutdowns, have eroded morale on Capitol Hill, and more senior staffers are looking toward the exits than in the past, according to a new survey released Monday by the Congressional Management Foundation.

Congress may not work very well these days, but things would be much much worse if it was no longer able to attract top talent and retain the unique institutional knowledge that longtime aides possess.

CMF, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides management consulting for members' offices, surveyed 163 House and Senate chiefs of staffs and district or state directors in late 2013 under the promise of anonymity. The results are troubling.

Thirty-eight percent of senior staffers surveyed said it was "likely" they would look for a job outside their current office in the next year, up 8 percentage points from the last survey, in 2011. Meanwhile, the percentage saying it was unlikely they'd look for a new job fell 13 points from 64 percent to 51 percent, a bare majority.

"When you look at the landscape of changes, these are the most significant changes to congressional offices in a generation," Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the foundation told National Journal. "It's a folly to think that those changes are not going to have an impact on staff retention or recruitment."

In addition to budget cuts, many staffers are losing their federal employee health benefits and being forced to purchase coverage through the insurance exchanges established by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a change Republicans pushed for political reasons. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and others even tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation eliminating staffers' health insurance subsidy, while another GOP senator recently brought a lawsuit to do the same.

Respondents to the survey were encouraged to provide candid thoughts on life as a senior aide, and many said the health insurance change and budget cuts have had a tremendous negative impact on their lives and offices. "The most damaging action or lack thereof to morale I have witnessed in my 40-year career as a committee staffer and [chief of staff] for three members was the refusal not only to address the staff health care mistake but to fix it," one said.

Said another: "I hired well to build a competent staff for a senior member. As a result of the sequester, I'm losing those staff to off-Hill positions that pay sometimes double what pay on the Hill is, with more certainty and no furloughs. This is a horrible situation."

Cuts have forced managers to do more with less, straining resources and patience. In 2011, 30 percent of respondents agreed that they have "too much to do to do everything well"—that number doubled in the 2013 survey, jumping to 62 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage saying "job burnout is a significant problem in my office" climbed 10 percentage points, from 30 percent to 40 percent.

And the decline of in-house resources creates a vacuum that can be filled by outside groups such as think tanks and lobbyists, aides fear. "The elimination of staff's traditional health care has been a complete disaster," one staffer said. "If you wanted a legislative branch run by K Street lobbyists and 25-year-old staffers, mission accomplished." 

Of course, congressional aides have always been underpaid and overworked, but they keep coming back because of a commitment to public service or a desire to have an impact. But there may be a point when salary and budget cuts go too far, even for the most service-oriented. "Is there a breaking point at some point where Capitol Hill becomes significantly less attractive and private sector is more attractive, or an entirely different career?" Fitch wonders.

For any American interested in fixing Congress and having representatives who can perform their jobs well, let's hope we haven't already reached that point.

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