Adding capacity to House member offices: Who, what, how?
Congressional reformers frequently urge the House of Representatives to expand its capacity by expanding its staff, which has consistently shrunk over the last three decades. Often reformers are focused on committee staff, who tend to be the repositories of institutional memory in a chamber with lots of member turnover, and who are generally among the most knowledgeable policy specialists in the House.
Sometimes, however, they suggest expanding the capacity of House member offices. The logic is straightforward: policy staff in member offices are spread extremely thin; junior staff in their early twenties are often asked to bite off more than they can chew; and members have larger districts than ever before, without having expanded their staff.
Suppose, then, we’d like to expand House member office capacity. How can we best execute that plan in practice? What are the constraints that members currently face that limit their capacity?
There are three main constraints to consider:
- rules that limit each office to 18 staff (plus 4 supplementary slots for part-time, temporary, and shared workers);
- limited office space in Washington, D.C.; and
- limited funds.
Recently, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has recommended lifting the staff cap from 18 (as well as increasing the number of available supplementary slots), squarely taking aim at the first constraint. The appeal of this strategy is clear: changing the rules that apply to House member offices won’t, in itself, have a fiscal cost. The numerical cap on member office staff is inside baseball and can be changed without making a political ripple.
But how effective is it likely to be at improving House member office capacity?
The short answer is: raising the cap may not change all that much, and most offices won’t be affected at all. By the same token, such a modest change ought not really encounter very much opposition.
To understand why, we need consider the shape and size of House member offices in recent years. We’d especially want to know how many people each office employs under the current rules. Presumably, the change in rules will only matter to those offices near the 18+4 limit. Other things being equal, we would expect offices that employ fewer staffers already to continue to do so under a higher cap.
Although the House makes all of its spending information public through its quarterly Disbursement Reports, counting how many staffers an office has at a single moment is a less straightforward task than it seems. Looking directly at how many individuals received disbursements from a member during a particular MRA year produces an overcount, since every office experiences turnover.
To avoid this problem, I take snapshots of recent House member offices. In other words, I produce a dataset that shows exactly who is employed by which office on a specific date. I do so by looking at the last day of each calendar quarter in each year: March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31, for each of the three MRA years for which there is complete machine-readable data (2016, 2017, and 2018).
At each of these dates, the average staff count in normal personal member offices is between 16 and 17; the aggregate average is 16.6. Clearly, then, the average office is not running up against the 18+4 numerical cap. But how many offices are close? We can look at the whole distribution of offices:
Around 8% of all office-snaps were at 20 or more staff, and 32.4% were at 18 or more.
Is the “+4” part of the cap more constraining than the “18”?
To answer that, it’s necessary to tease apart those “core” staffers subject to the 18 limit and those “supplementary” staffers who can be counted as part of the +4. Doing so based on the disbursement data is, again, not entirely straightforward, as there is nothing in the data to specifically mark out supplementary staff. Some job titles provide help, however, including “shared employee,” “part-time employee,” “paid intern,” and “temporary employee.”
For the last three of these categories, there seems to be no better option than to take these labels as exhaustive—in other words, if someone is part-time but are not labeled as such, there is no way of knowing that from the available data, and it is possible that we could undercount part-time employees. For shared employees, however, the data reveals whether an employee is employed by (received compensation from) any other House office at the time of the snapshot, and this is a better indication of “shared” status than relying on title information alone.
Using this information, we can get a good, if imperfect, view of how many core employees (currently subject to the 18 cap) and how many supplementary employees (who can go into the current +4) there are in each office.
The most common type of office over the three years observed was composed of 14 core employees and 2 supplementary employees, for a total of 16. This means that the average office was operating at 4 below the core employee limit of 18, and 2 below the supplementary employee limit of 4. To the extent that either of these two caps is limiting the size of staff, these numbers seem to imply that the “18” is doing most of the constraining, rather than the “+4”.
But, it’s clear the core employee limit isn’t a particularly strong constraint either. Indeed, less than 1 out of every 10 of offices had, at any given time, 16 or more core employees. It’s difficult to see how raising the corresponding cap of 18 would substantially alter behavior when so many offices fail to approach maximum capacity already.
One additional important, if obvious, observation—if the House raises the numerical cap without also addressing the funding, average staffer pay will have to fall.
That would be consistent with what is observed in the data from 2016-2018.
In summation, most House member offices are not currently bumping up against the numerical cap on their staffers. Raising the cap won’t affect them.
A few dozen offices are close to the cap, and they might take advantage of flexibility added by a higher cap. But limited dollars and D.C. office space make it unlikely that they’ll be hiring experienced policy experts. Rather, they’d probably be adding more junior district staff, such as caseworkers. That might be a good way to serve their constituents, and it might be worth doing, but it is unlikely to make House members a more formidable force in the policymaking process.