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To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       Casey Burgat, Senior Fellow, R Street Institute

Reform:   Potential non-salary staffing reforms

Many of the proposals for how best to increase congressional staff retention and expertise will start and end with increasing staff salaries. Such proposals are understandable, particularly considering that relatively low-pay is the number one cited reason for why congressional aides depart Congress.[1] Increasing staff pay will aide recruitment of top talent and incentivize current aides to stay within Congress, resulting in a more experienced, effective member support network.

But, increasing appropriations for staffing resources are politically difficult votes for members to take. Members are, of course, loathe to take votes that increase spending on themselves.

Thus, to address staff capacity, the Select Committee should focus on the lack of professional development opportunities currently available to staffers—the second most cited reason staffers leave Congress.[2]  The House can address such aide frustrations by institutionalizing resources available to staff across the entire chamber rather than on an office-to-office basis as currently exists.

Potential professional development reforms

Staff onboarding: The congressional learning curve is steep. Young staff frequently comment on how different their expectations of life on the Hill ends up being from their day-to-day on the job. The House could better prepare newly hired staffers by institutionalizing an onboarding process within the first few weeks of the aide’s hiring. Relevant information provided could include: guides on resources available to staff, such as the Congressional Research Service; Congress.gov training; Human Resources contacts and staff rights information; constituent service software guides; best practices relevant to specific positions, such as writing constituent service letters as a Legislative Correspondent; staff-prepared materials on the congressional work-life, common frustrations, and FAQ. This process can take place semi-regularly (e.g., once per month) to foster a cohort relationship with other recent hires.

Procedural training: Procedure is rarely studied prior to serving in Congress; it is learned by doing once on the job. Understanding the rules and procedures is a big differentiator in a staffer’s effectiveness and value within Congress. Regular procedural training can be offered by relevant Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysts, the House Office of Legislative Counsel, and/or the House Parliamentarian’s office. Trainings are currently available on an infrequent cyclical basis from CRS with little regard for the congressional calendar (i.e., during work-days and legislative sessions) or when directly requested by offices (of which many aren’t aware of the opportunity). Online procedural webinars can also be made available to staff on the House intranet to allow for self-study independent of scheduled trainings.

Internal training: Other training programs could be offered to help aides thrive in the congressional environment and develop skills that will be valuable in seeking promotions. Training programs can include: public speaking; answering constituent calls, particularly on controversial issues; resume/cover letter writing for legislative context; social media training; bill and amendment drafting; understanding Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scoring and processes; personal office relationships with committee staffs and leadership offices. The House could also establish a speakership series, formal and informal, that allow staff access to chamber leaders and staff, more senior staffers, committee staff, and policy experts to discuss career paths and life within those positions.

Mentorship program: Staffers often credit more experienced mentors for providing invaluable assistance in navigating Congress, career advice, and even landing them a better job. But, these mentor-mentee relationships are few and typically develop after years of working together in close proximity. To help newer staffers develop these internal relationships outside of their personal offices, Congress could develop a chamber-wide mentorship program in which young aides are matched with willing experienced aides. The participants would ultimately decide the nature and specifics of the relationship, but the House could play an instrumental role in pairing committed staffers.

Given some restructuring, many of these potential reforms could be effectively administered by the House Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). Implementing the reforms would likely require increased appropriations to the administering office, which would avoid directly increasing the Member’s Representational Allowance (MRA). Avoiding MRA increases may provide enough political cover for members fearing voting on the record to increased personal spending.

Importantly, these reforms would begin to provide the professional development opportunities staff consistently complain are missing from congressional employment, and ultimately lead to their departing Congress. Institutionalizing these and other reforms across the entire chamber will also remove much of the office-by-office variance in what is made available to aides, and instead grant all House employees access to resources vital to them investing in a career in Congress.

Thank you for your consideration. I’d be happy to answer any questions committee members or staff may have. You may contact me at cburgat@rstreet.org.


[1] Congressional Management Foundation, Life in Congress: Job Satisfaction and Engagement of House and Senate Staff, 2013.

[2] Ibid. Forty-eight percent cited ‘inadequate professional development’ as a top reason for leaving their current jobs, just three percent less than ‘the desire to earn more money’ (51 percent).


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Topics: Reform Efforts