Losing staff can make you a less effective lawmaker
The modern Congress is, in many ways, held together by a cadre of talented, but under-resourced, professionals. As the lawmaking environment continues to grow more complex, congressional offices are reportedly overwhelmed by an incredible volume of constituent correspondence. Some estimates indicate that the House alone gets somewhere around 30 million messages per year from constituents. Today’s staffers almost certainly do far more for far less. Given the crushing demands of such a vital job, it is no wonder that so many have expressed concern. As Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) puts it, “our available resources and our policy staffs, the brains of Congress, have been so depleted that we can’t do our jobs properly.”
Congressional staff seems pretty important, and with the formation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, congressional capacity has become something of a hot topic among political scientists and reformers. Restoring Congress’s position as the First Branch is no small task, but for many, the current conditions on Capitol Hill seem unsustainable. Today, Congress hires fewer staffers at salaries that have stagnated at best, leading to many structural concerns, including important diversity and retention issues.
Despite the seemingly obvious consequences of an understaffed legislature, it is actually pretty difficult to pin the effect of a reduction in staff among members of the House. Even if you agree that we are witnessing “the big lobotomy” of the national legislature, it’s often hard to rule out alternative explanations. For example, it is possible that staffers routinely work on more overtly political tasks, suggesting that an increase in Members’ Representational Allowance – or other proposals in this vein – may not have much of an impact on legislative or representational duties.
Unfortunately, the nature of personnel allowances often prevents researchers from considering the fallout from a sudden increase or decrease in staffing capacity. Reductions in congressional resources tend to be rare, chamber-wide events, which rules out our ability to consider something like a control group. Put differently, we typically lack meaningful variation in staffing resources across congressional offices and over time, which robs political scientists of establishing a fair comparison. Isolating staffing effects from the broader political environment is often just not feasible.
Moving Forward by Looking Backwards
In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Public Policy, I take advantage of a rare opportunity to evaluate an abrupt and targeted reduction in staffing capacity. More specifically, I analyze changing patterns in legislative affairs shortly after legislative service organizations (LSOs) were abolished in 1995. Using archived Congressional Research Service reports, I estimate the cost of losing staff among former LSO leaders.[i]
As the above figure illustrates, caucuses (i.e., informal membership organizations) are abundant on Capitol Hill. In contrast to most of these informal legislative groups,[ii] however, LSOs represented a small subset of congressional caucuses that were officially certified, highly structured, and often well-funded. This distinct status was formally established in 1979, when LSO leaders were given access to House resources – including office space, administrative services, and, most importantly, an efficient means of supporting full-time staff. LSOs apparently used these resources to provide high-quality, custom information for lawmakers. For ambitious House members, these groups stood out as an innovative means of legislative coordination.
In the wake of the 1994 elections, however, Republicans swiftly dismantled the new set of institutions. Just days into the 104th Congress, a provision in the new House rules (H. Res. 6, Section 222) mandated an “orderly termination” of LSOs. While this enraged many Republican and Democratic lawmakers, it also provided a useful research opportunity. The abolition of LSOs only affected a subset of House members, giving us some empirical leverage to determine how – and if – staff matter in legislative affairs. I used this watershed moment in the development of congressional membership organizations to track how the relative legislative performance of LSO leaders and otherwise similar co-partisans changed after 1995.
The figure below compares the (linear) patterns in legislative effectiveness among LSO leaders and their House colleagues before and after these organizations were prohibited from directly utilizing official House resources. While the specific pattern below offers a simple description of these two groups, the image generally captures the results from a more rigorous analysis presented in the paper.[iii] Put simply, the abolition of LSOs negatively affected the lawmaking capacity of LSO leaders. Lawmakers suddenly stripped of legislative staff became less effective according to several metrics – even after accounting for other important factors (e.g., positions of influence, partisan standing, unobservable characteristics).
While the aggregate results are informative, a brief look at the specific case of the Democratic Study Group (DSG) highlights the impact of losing staff. The Democratic Study group was a major player in legislative politics throughout the 20th century, and in some ways, a precursor to the modern ideological faction. After securing LSO certification, however, DSG leaders held a considerable advantage in moving bills beyond committee chokepoints, relative to their Democratic counterparts. After losing official House resources, the gap between DSG leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers closed considerably, suggesting that the abolition of LSOs blunted the advantages provided by expert staff.
The DSG disbanded shortly after losing these valuable resources, but other LSOs (e.g., the Republican Study Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus) managed to adapt to their new political environment. In an ongoing book project, I argue that this institutional shift has incentivized a new era of ideological factions that depends on outside donors and activists, rather than official public funds. More to the point, however, the lessons of past reform efforts can be instructive as we consider next steps for the First Branch.
Still, the LSOs provide a somewhat dated example of staffing impacts bound up with many other important institutional shifts in the wake of the Republican revolution. Moreover, most people on the Hill would probably agree that improving the conditions of congressional staff makes sense. They don’t need an econometric analysis to get the basic idea. Raising the staffing resources available to Congress seems obviously good for the many hard-working public servants that play an important role in drafting legislation, and it seems pretty good for the institution, too.
Considering the Costs of Inaction
So, why doesn’t Congress act to shore up their staffing capacity? It’s not as if Members of Congress aren’t aware of the problem. That’s a question too big for me to adequately address here, but fortunately, a growing number of political scientists are contributing to the conversation on congressional capacity and the importance of staff. At a glance, however, the political costs of moving in this direction seem real, particularly if you strip down the argument for greater investment in congressional capacity. Think through the fallout of giving the already unpopular legislative branch a much-needed raise, and you can quickly imagine a series of (cheesy) political ads in your head. Members of the Select Committee are sure to give this angle the thought it deserves.
Despite these concerns, the effect of abolishing LSOs provides some additional information for lawmakers to consider. The results discussed above do not address the impact of such investments on the well-being of congressional staffers. Nor do those results directly weigh in on the big-picture, checks-and-balances considerations appropriately at the forefront of the present debate. Beyond those important perspectives, losing staff seems to hurt an individual legislator’s ability to advance policy proposals, whatever those proposals may be. Given these findings, the effects of inaction should be properly weighed against other important political costs. To the extent that Members of Congress value this form of legislative effectiveness, a robust approach to developing and retaining more experienced staffers seems like a smart move.
[i] I am indebted to Rep. Robert Hurt (Va-05) and Robert Dilger of the Congressional Research Service for making my data collection efforts possible.
[iii] In the paper, I use coarsened exact matching (on possibly confounding time- and unit-varying variables) coupled with a two-way fixed effects linear regression model. The goal was to account for as many possible baseline differences between LSO leaders and co-partisans before drawing any inferences about the impact of losing congressional resources.