A new report from New America by Alexandra Furnas and Timothy LaPira examines legislative capacity in the 21st century.

Executive Summary

This research report comprehensively investigates congressional capacity and governance using publicly available data on long-term trends in legislative branch expenditures and data Furnas and LaPira collected in the 2017 and 2019 Congressional Capacity Surveys (CCS). When combined, the CCS is the most comprehensive time-series cross-sectional survey of congressional staffers’ professional backgrounds, career paths, policy views, technical knowledge, substantive expertise, and job experiences ever conducted. We document how the decline in legislative capacity has changed during the era of rising polarization and increasing political party competition. As a consequence, legislative staff in Washington are asked to do more and more, with less and less.

Key findings:

  1. Congress is a funnel to lucrative jobs in lobbying. Between 40−45 percent see the private sector as their next career step. Roughly half of staff aiming to enter the private sector after serving on the Hill want to become lobbyists. For the most part, working on the Hill is viewed as an entry-level position for K Street, rather than a stepping stone for a career in public service.
  2. Staff resources have shifted to the district. The share of total staffer full-time equivalents dedicated to Washington, D.C. offices has fallen from more than 70 percent in the 1970s to 50 percent in recent years.
  3. There are fewer resources to pay staff. In the House of Representatives, the budget allocated for office staff hires fell by 10 percent from 2013 to 2017.
  4. Staff pay is declining. Salaries fell among communications, legislative, and administrative staff following the 110th Congress (2007-2008). The decline cannot alone be attributed to the member pay freeze and austerity measures resulting from the Great Recession because the decline in resources allocated for legislative staff started well before 2007.
  5. Congressional staffers in important roles are largely inexperienced. Most staff who manage policy portfolios in Congress have only one or two years of Hill experience. That is, roughly one-third of legislative staffers have not yet served the duration of a single Congress. Conversely, staffers in both chambers who have spent more time working in Congress are measurably more knowledgeable about institutional procedures and important policy topics.
  6. Capitol Hill is staffed primarily by Millennials. Roughly 60 percent of the congressional staffer population is under the age of 35, and 75 percent under 40 years old.
  7. Turnover among congressional staff is exceedingly high. The average tenure for staff on Capitol Hill is 3.1 years. About 65 percent of staffers plan to leave Congress within five years. Even more strikingly, 43 percent plan to depart by the end of the Congress in which they are employed.
  8. Most do not see working in Congress as a long-term career option. Even among those who would like to continue careers in the public sector, more than half (55 percent) plan to leave Congress.
  9. Staffers work extremely long hours, and are spread thin. More than 65 percent of staff work 50+ hours a week, and 20 percent of staff work 60+ hours. Of senior staffers, 65 percent work 60+ hours a week. The average legislative staffer works on two to six issue areas every single day.
  10. Staff like working for their boss, but not so much for Congress. Seventy-six percent report a very strong or strong sense of belonging in their employing office, but only 61 percent feel similarly about Congress as a whole. This institutional deficit is greater for women and staffers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
  11. In Congress, experience yields knowledge, but is not rewarded. Staffers that have spent more time working in Congress are measurably more knowledgeable about institutional procedures and important policy topics. This is true across both chambers, and is unrelated to actual work assignments. Yet, turnover is so high and retention rates so low that members fail to keep that knowledge in house, so must rely more and more on K Street.
  12. Staffers are highly partisan and highly ideological. Sixty-five percent of staffers identify as strong partisans, and almost no staffers identify as true independents. Staffers are well-sorted ideologically, such that there is little ideological overlap between Democratic and Republican offices.

Read the full report here – and don’t miss their suggested avenues for patching some of these systemic flaws in the “Lessons for Congressional Capacity Reform.”

Filed Under:
Topics: Congressional Staffing
Tim LaPira
Dr. Tim LaPira is an associate professor of political science at James Madison University, where he has taught since 2010. He previously taught at Col...