Memo: Staff recruitment, retention, compensation and benefits; and chair term limits

To:                  The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:              Alan E. Wiseman, Co-Director, Center for Effective Lawmaking, Vanderbilt University; Craig Volden, Co-Director, Center for Effective Lawmaking, University of Virginia

Reform:          Staff recruitment, retention, compensation and Benefits;  and chair term limits


Members of Congress are being asked to do more with less. They seek to allocate their scarce staff resources carefully given their multiple, and sometimes competing, objectives. New members remain vulnerable to spending their freshmen year mired in the business of simply navigating their new environments. Committee chairs, once powerhouses of institutional knowledge and reform, have been disempowered and left to navigate complex policy issues without specialized staff.  Moreover, the legislative staff with the most valuable experience are not remaining in Congress but are departing for more lucrative job opportunities.

Legislators do not generally benefit from large legislative staffs but, rather, from having and retaining individual staffers with high levels of experience. A targeted strategy to help retain the most experienced staff in Congress will pay the greatest dividends in regards to lawmaking.

Our research has also shown that imposing term limits on committee and subcommittee chairs are problematic in that they limit and stifle the ability of chairs to effectively move forward and advance new policies, particularly in issue areas that are complex.

This memo draws on our published research and academic scholarship to provide solutions to legislative staffing concerns as well as concerns related to term limits on committee and subcommittee chairs.

Issue #1: Legislators advance more (and more significant) legislation when they retain a more experienced staff.


In Washington, congressional staffers serve as a legislator’s engines of policy production as they draft bills, seek out cosponsors, meet with lobbyists, and network with other key staffers on the legislator’s behalf.[1] Consequently, the allocation of scarce resources to various types of staff represents a vital strategic decision that each member of Congress must face.

Based on our analysis, House members who have highly-experienced legislative staff members appear to be more effective lawmakers.[2]

Very specific and targeted attempts to enhance congressional lawmaking capacity are likely to be more fruitful than broad-brush reforms. We find no relationship between the number of legislative staff and a member’s lawmaking effectiveness. Nor do we find a relationship between the amount of money that is devoted to legislative staff and lawmaking effectiveness. What matters is whether a member has a highly experienced staff member involved in legislative policymaking; and those legislators are most effective at advancing their agendas through the lawmaking process.

Proposal #1: Provide experienced staff to new lawmakers.

As the newest members of the Congress, freshmen face some of the toughest obstacles to effective lawmaking. Lacking the legislative expertise, political networks, and knowledge of congressional folkways possessed by their more senior peers, freshmen may choose to supplement their inexperience by hiring more experienced legislative staff. However, relatively few choose, or are able, to do so.

Likely consequences: New representatives will be able to draw on the institutional knowledge and expertise of experienced staff to increase their abilities to be effective lawmakers quickly.

Proposal #2: Target efforts to retain the most experienced staff members by increasing the overall experience levels of congressional staff members and/or pay them significantly more.

Representatives whose most senior legislative staffer is among the most experienced in the House appear to benefit greatly from having them on payroll in regards to their lawmaking effectiveness. Specifically, an increase in five years of experience in a Representative’s most experienced legislative staffer is associated with a 17% increase in her Legislative Effectiveness Score.[3] However, current staffers often cite poor working conditions and lower salaries as the main reasons that many of their colleagues departed the Hill to work as lobbyists.[4]

Likely consequences: By creating better working conditions and/or increasing legislative staff pay, experienced congressional staff will more likely remain in positions in Congress, thereby increasing their levels of experience and expertise, which will in turn enhance the institution’s ability to effectively draft, propose and enact into law much-needed reforms.

Issue #2: Term limits on committee chairs limit the overall ability of Congress and its committees to solve policy problems.


The loss of expertise among committee and subcommittee chairs has been an important change in congressional lawmaking in recent decades, even to the point of hobbling must-pass legislation, ranging from the federal budget through major reauthorizations.[5] In turn, Congress is less able to address crises and major public policy needs than it has been in the past. Our research demonstrates that committee and subcommittee chairs really begin to distinguish themselves as lawmakers (in comparison to other members) after having chaired a committee for more than three consecutive terms—something that has not occurred since the 103rd Congress. 

Proposal: Remove term limits on committee chairs and subcommittee chairs.

Likely consequences: Committee and subcommittee chairs, and thereby Congress as an institution, will become more effective at lawmaking as they gain both the policy expertise to engage with problems and the political acumen to carry such solutions over complex and often partisan obstacles.


Thank you for your consideration. We are available to answer any questions committee members or staff may have. You may contact us at and


[1] Elizabeth Beshears, “Happy Warrior: A Little-Known Alabamian is Conservatives’ Secret Weapon in DC.” Yellowhammer News (2015).

[2] Jesse M. Crosson, Geoffrey M. Lorenz, Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman. 2018. “How Experienced Legislative Staff Contribute to Effective Lawmaking,” Center for Effective Lawmaking Working Paper 2018-002.

[3] Jesse M. Crosson, Geoffrey M. Lorenz, Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman. 2018. “How Experienced Legislative Staff Contribute to Effective Lawmaking,” Center for Effective Lawmaking Working Paper 2018-002.

[4] Lee Drutman, Alexander Furnas, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Kevin Kosar and Timothy M. LaPira, “2017 Congressional Capacity Staff Interviews,” James Madison University (2017).

[5] Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman, “Legislative Effectiveness and Problem Solving in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Congress Reconsidered 11th Edition (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2016).