The Downsides of Using Executive Agency Detailees

In a previous post, I recounted the advantages of using executive detailees as a means of combatting staffing shortages on Capitol Hill. In short, agency detailees can serve as a free source of policy expertise to Congress, providing committees experience and insight into agency decision making and likely responses to congressional actions.

But, as with all governing arrangements, executive branch detailees are not always an unalloyed good. Detailees, as some Hill veterans will explain, can come with costs.

1. Detailees can have divided loyalties

Detailees can have a hard time shedding their agency allegiances, ultimately resulting in divided loyalties between their parent agency and their new congressional committee. These allegiances may be unconscious byproducts of spending a career in the executive branch.

Other agency employees, however, may have more deliberate congressional prejudices. Such detailees view Congress and its committees as institutions unfamiliar with the intricate inner-workings of their agency, and ones attempting to encroach on their expertise and operations with new laws and a constant barrage of oversight information requests. In these instances, detailees may struggle to work in support of the institutional interests of Congress.

2. Detailees can have fixed policy preferences

Relatedly, borrowed agency employees may bring with them explicit policy preferences, often within specific issue areas they handled within their parent agency. Serving as a policy expert on a relevant committee may provide an opportunity to grind such a policy ax and, in turn, warp the policy-making processes within their new committee.

3. Detailees often need training

Detailees are often unfamiliar with the legislative process require basic training in congressional procedures once they get to the Hill. Given that committee resources are already severely strapped, providing such training further saps the time of permanent committee staff.

The time and resources spent bringing detailees up to speed on the ways of the Hill can result in a small return on the investment for Congress. What’s more, because detailees are loaned out for a limited time—often a year or less before returning to the executive branch—a constant cycle of orientation, training, working, departing can develop where very little time is spent on intricate policy making.

4. Detailees can mute the call for increasing staffing capacity

A growing dependence on detailees as a means to compensate for decreasing congressional capacity may result in some to argue that increasing the number of permanent congressional staff isn’t necessary. Detailees are seen by some as capacity Band Aids covering up the more threatening conditions of limited expertise and too few staff in Congress. Increasing committee reliance on their use may perpetuate a situation of inadequate congressional staffing levels.

Agency detailees can be a source of policy expertise for congressional committees, but their contributions can’t be assumed. Detailees, themselves, can be a drain on the already limited capacity of Congress, and ultimately make Congress less effective, less productive, and more susceptible to outside influence.