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Congressional capacity and reform: The role of staff

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       Tracy Sulkin, Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reform:   Congressional capacity and reform: The role of staff

In their seminal 1981 article, “U.S. Congressman as Enterprise,” Salisbury and Shepsle offered a depiction of MCs not as individuals, but as: “the head of an enterprise—an organization consisting of anywhere from eight or ten to well over one hundred subordinates. These organizations, varying in complexity, structure, and function, constrain and shape the behavior of members in ways that help make the Congress itself a “loosely coupled” collection of these enterprises, a very different institution than it was.”

The authors’ attentiveness to this issue was a response to a recent and rapid increase in congressional committee and personal staff (from approximately 7,000 in 1967 to over 13,000 in 1979), which they argued had the potential to affect all aspects of congressional behavior. Although counts of congressional staff vary a bit depending on the source, it is clear that staff numbers today are lower than they were in the 1970s, particularly for committee staff, and the same holds true for support organizations such as the GAO and CRS. Notably, these decreases in staff have come at a time when the demands on Congress have increased in almost all realms (e.g., the complexity of policy, oversight vis a vis the executive, navigating a changing media environment). In turn, this has forced members to make trade-offs between devoting staff attention to policy vs. other matters, and has raised the attention and concern of prominent observers of the institution.

While it might seem that an obvious solution would be to simply increase staffing numbers, it is important to note that Salisbury and Shepsle were not entirely sanguine about the effects of growth in the size of members’ enterprises, arguing, for example, that it led to increased promotional activities on the part of the representative, but not a concomitant increase in individual policymaking or aggregate congressional capacity. There is little reason to expect that these impulses have lessened over the past four decades, and, in fact, reason to believe that they have increased.

Accordingly, a first priority in thinking about congressional staffing as a means to reform is to target the types of staffers and expertise that are the most helpful. If the goal is to increase capacity in policymaking, then committee staff are the most appropriate locus of attention. In addition to increasing the number of individuals who work as committee staffers, the institution would be well-served by considering reforms to increase the attractiveness of such staff positions as a career.

On this front, the advice is no different than it would be for any large organization seeking to recruit and retain quality staff. It goes without saying that it is important to try to set salaries in line with the marketplace. However, even if it is not possible to match the salaries offered in the private sector, there are a multitude of other strategies that are successfully used in other settings (e.g., by universities to make faculty or staff careers on campus more attractive than those in industry). These include providing career ladders within the institution to reduce the dynamic that one must move out to move up (and providing clear information about what it takes to be promoted), providing professional development opportunities and formal recognition of accomplishments, and offering some flexibility in scheduling to accommodate work-life balance. This last component is probably the most difficult to offer given the nature of congressional work, but is also likely to have a big effect on the ability to diversify staff ranks in terms of age, gender, and potentially other factors as well.

In short, proposals for congressional reform that do not take seriously the role of staff will fall short of achieving the goals of a higher-capacity, better-functioning institution. However, the answer is not as simple as just adding more staff. Instead, Congress would be well-served by taking seriously the idea of modernizing the staff system to attract the best and brightest to its ranks, to insure that staffers reflect a diversity of interests and background, and to keep top performers a part of the institution.

Thank you for your consideration. If the committee has further questions, please contact me at tsulkin@illinois.edu.

Filed Under:
Topics: Reform Efforts