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Enhancing expertise and diversity in committees and staffing

To:           The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:     Michele Swers, Professor of Government, Georgetown University

Reform: Enhancing Expertise and Diversity in Committees and Staffing

More diverse work environments based on class, gender, and race/ethnicity improve deliberation and outcomes.  In my own research on gender, it is clear that female members believe they bring a different perspective to congressional deliberation and unique policy priorities.  As women have increased their representation in Congress, they have sought commitments from House and Senate leadership to place more women on a wide array of committees, particularly power committees.  Occasionally, leaders have sought to place women on particular committees explicitly because they felt gender diversity was needed.  The 2018 elections brought in a much more diverse class of new members who are eager to wield significant policy influence.  Reforms to the committee system need to be adopted to harness the energy of new members while cultivating the expertise of more senior colleagues.

Committee Chairs: Cultivating Expertise and Creating Opportunities for New Members

Republicans adoption of term limits significantly changed committee dynamics.  The 6-year term limit brings in new leadership with new ideas but elevates fundraising prowess over policy knowledge and pushes out chairs just as they are becoming experts in their jurisdictions.  With the incumbency advantage fueling long tenures and a large class of new members, reliance on strict seniority may not be sustainable.  If term limits are adopted, a longer term is required, perhaps 10 years with only years in the majority serving as chair counting toward the limit (years as ranking member would not be counted).  Additionally, the choice of the next chair should value development of expertise over fundraising skills. Therefore, it should be assumed that the incoming chair will be the next member in line by seniority to avoid a situation where members compete to demonstrate to leadership that they will make the best chair by engaging in fundraising. Any effort to bypass seniority should require a vote by the caucus.

Committees should also consider making vice-chair positions for subcommittees and have these positions be meaningful.  At the start of the 116th Congress, Speaker Pelosi negotiated her return to the leadership by continuously expanding seats at the leadership table to incorporate new and more diverse voices.  The same technique could be employed at the subcommittee level by giving vice chairs more defined responsibilities.  The vice-chair position should specifically be given to an early career member (2nd-4th term) allowing the position to be a place where talent and expertise are nurtured.

Congressional Staff: Expanding Diversity and Cultivating Expertise

Just as we recognize the need for more diverse viewpoints at the policymaking table in committees and leadership, we need to find ways to encourage more diverse staff hires, particularly among higher level staff (Chiefs of Staff, Legislative Director, Communications Director).  Staffing positions are often given based on networking ties that perpetuate the current system.  Efforts to expand the talent pool should include the following:

Creation of Funded Internships for Particular Underrepresented Groups

Many college students do unpaid internships in the hopes of making the connections to a future staff position.  This often limits the talent pool to those who can afford to do an unpaid internship in a very expensive city.  Congress should create internship fellowships based on financial need and underpresented diversity categories to allow these groups to get their foot in the door. This would also require offering housing stipends or even purchasing housing space that can be utilized as dorms/apartments for interns year round.  Members of Congress should also receive dedicated funds to pay their interns.

Expanding Staff Benefits to Recruit More Diverse Staff

In addition to increasing staff salaries which often are too low to cover living costs in the Washington D.C. area, Congress should invest in expanding child care services so that more staff have access to higher quality, lower cost child care on site.  Housing subsidies can also defray the cost of a very expensive Washington, D.C. market to encourage recruitment of more working class staff and staff from a member’s district.

Expand Recruitment by Building on the creation of the Office of Diversity

The office should proactively reach out to House offices and committees to highlight job candidate resumes that demonstrate expertise in the committee fields. Rather than being a source that collects information and resumes, the office should hold periodic briefings and trainings and reach out specifically to offices that are looking to fill particular positions.  Offices should be required to notify the Office of Diversity when making new hires and encouraged to expand their recruitment pools.

While the above recommendations are focused on recruiting a more diverse workforce, Congress also faces an overarching problem in which the low salary and long hours faced by Congressional staff reduce their ability to develop policy expertise and increase their reliance on lobbyists. Furthermore, current salary and responsibility structures enhance incentives for members and staff to move off the Hill and into lobbying positions that reward the connections that staffers/former members have developed to sitting lawmakers.  This issue must be considered in efforts to reform and enhance congressional staffing.

Thank you for your consideration. If the committee has further questions, please contact me at mls47@georgetown.edu.



Filed Under:
Topics: Reform Efforts
Michele Swers
Michele Swers is a Professor of American Government in the Department of Government. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Swers' research...