Staff have the skills to assist Congress, but they need more resources

By Jennifer L. Selin and Hanna K. Brant

At a recent hearing before the House Committee on Rules, Democracy Reform Task Force Chair Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) called for an improvement in congressional capacity, arguing “If you look back over modern Congressional history, you will see that Congress, as an institution, has continually wrestled with how to be a more effective first branch of government.” 

Historically, one of the primary ways Congress as an institution has worked to increase its effectiveness has been to allocate staff to committees, individual Members of Congress, and party leadership.  Staff allow Congress to manage a heavier workload and sort through the information needed to make the complex policy choices required in the modern era.  Yet politicians, the media, and scholars alike have provided evidence that, in the past decade, numbers of congressional staff in both the House and Senate have declined.  Not only are raw numbers of staff low, but many worry about whether staff have the capacity to perform their jobs.

Because congressional staff have implications for legislative productivity and responsiveness, understanding the “unelected representatives” of the legislature is key to understanding the capacity of Congress to perform its duties effectively.  Yet few studies examine staff ability to perform the core functions of their jobs.  In order to fill this gap and gain understanding of whether staff have the skills to assist Congress, we administered a new survey to over 12,000 personal and committee staff in the 115th session of Congress (2017-2018).  We received 525 responses, yielding a response rate of just over four percent.  Our survey results suggest that, in contrast to popular grumbles about congressional capacity, a majority of staffers believe that their offices have the skills necessary to help Congress fulfill its constitutional mission. However, these perceptions are influenced by the chamber and type of office for which staff work.

Staff have the skills to help Congress, but the House and Senate may differ

First, to assess whether staff are able to assist Congress with its duties generally, we asked respondents to report the extent they agree or disagree with the following: “An inadequately skilled workforce is a significant obstacle to my office [committee] fulfilling its core mission.”  Overall, most staffers disagree with that sentiment.  Figure 1 depicts staffer responses to this question by office type and chamber.

Figure 1: Inadequately Skilled Workforce is an Obstacle by Office Type and Chamber

While a majority of personal and committee staff strongly disagree or disagree that an inadequately skilled workforce is a significant obstacle, there are differences between office type and chamber.  Specifically, our findings suggest that staff in the House are more concerned about fulfilling their core mission than staff in the Senate. 

However, when asked about their capacity to perform specific tasks, respondents in both chambers tended to agree that staff have the skill required to aid the legislature.  We asked respondents about staff skills relating to legislative drafting and conducting oversight.  Our survey asked respondents the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “My office’s [committee’s] staff has the skills necessary to draft legislation” and “My office’s [committee’s] staff has the skills necessary to implement oversight tasks.”  Figure 2 breaks down survey responses by chamber.  Contrary to concerns that staff are not equipped to facilitate the legislative process or to conduct oversight, we find that a majority of staffers agree or strongly agree that their office or committee’s staff has the necessary skills to perform two of the legislature’s core functions.

Figure 2: Skills Necessary to Draft Legislation and Conduct Oversight by Chamber

Our survey results raise an interesting question: if staff feel they have capacity to aid the legislature in performing its core mission, and have the skills to help draft legislation and to implement oversight tasks, then why are there so many public accounts lamenting inadequate legislative staff capacity?

Congress could improve institutional capacity with additional resources, particularly in the House

Even the most highly skilled employees cannot perform their jobs effectively without the right support and recent research suggests that scarce congressional resources may interfere with the legislature’s ability to function.  In order to explore such concerns, we asked respondents the extent they agree or disagree with the following statement: “My office [committee] has the resources it needs to function effectively.” Figure 3 depicts staffer responses to this question by chamber and office type.

Figure 3: Necessary Resources to Function Effectively by Office Type and Chamber

While most staffers agree that their office or committee has the necessary resources to function effectively, interesting differences emerge between chambers.  Specifically, it appears that House staff are much more divided on their offices’ or committees’ resources. 

Finally, given that Members of Congress have some flexibility regarding how they compensate various employees, staff satisfaction with salary provides an additional indicator of how legislators manage their scarce resources.  Legislative management of salary is so important that Congress recently requested the first study on compensation in nearly a decade.  We asked respondents the extent they agree or disagree with the following: “I feel my salary accurately compensates me for the amount of time and energy I devote to my job.” Figure 4 explores this question by chamber and office type.

Figure 4: Salary Accurately Compensates by Office Type and Chamber

Overall, there is quite a bit of variation across respondents.  Most personal staff in the House and Senate strongly disagree or disagree that their salary accurately compensates them.  Furthermore, a large percentage of House committee staff strongly disagree or disagree that they are adequately compensated. 

Considered together, the responses to our survey provide some food for thought.  First, too often we make important broad assumptions about staff capacity – either staff are talented or not – that have real consequences for how Congress works as an institution.  Variation in staff skills likely affects the performance of individual legislators, yet we are just beginning to understand those dynamics.  Relatedly, we have little knowledge of how Members of Congress manage their staff resources.  Before we can make meaningful conclusions about the success or failure of the legislature’s performance of its constitutional duties, we must understand the human resource management challenges that Members of Congress face.

For more information about our survey, please contact Jennifer Selin at: [email protected]

Jennifer L. Selin is a Kinder Institute Assistant Professor of Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.

Hanna K. Brant is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Missouri.