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Congress Is Broken, and Staff Members Know Why

Survey reveals dissatisfaction with key performance measures

Staff members rated key areas of congressional dysfunction in a survey released Tuesday, including the low level of staff experience, a lack of time for members to focus on important issues and a paucity of access to nonpartisan reports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Staff members rated key areas of congressional dysfunction in a survey released Tuesday, including the low level of staff experience, a lack of time for members to focus on important issues and a paucity of access to nonpartisan reports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Members of Congress will return in September to a glut of complex and technically challenging tasks, including tax policy, the debt ceiling, and Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But they won’t have the staff expertise, time or outside resources to do the job.

That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, based on a survey of 184 senior staffers.

The results suggest an alternative to the popular viewpoint that Congress is “not working because it does not want to work,” the report stated.

“Congress may not be working well because it does not currently have the capacity to work well,” the report concluded.

Kathy Goldschmidt, the study’s author, said she has noticed an increasing sense of frustration among congressional staffers during the 20 years she has worked for the Congressional Management Foundation and the House of Representatives. But she found the level of dissatisfaction expressed in the survey responses “stunning.”

“It should be concerning to citizens that the cornerstone, the keystone of our democracy may not have the capacity to do its job as effectively as we need it to,” she said.

The report is the latest of a series of publications to find that decades of declining investment in the country’s legislative branch have had consequences on lawmakers’ ability to govern. Those trends have coincided with increasing partisanship and gridlock in Congress.

The Congressional Management Foundation asked staffers to gauge the importance of certain measures of congressional performance. It matched those responses with how satisfied staffers were with the status quo.

Participation was limited to chiefs and deputy chiefs of staff, legislative directors, communications directors or press secretaries and district or state directors. 

The responses provided a grim assessment. 

“Offices don’t have nearly enough money for a good legislative staff,” said one respondent, identified in the report as a House legislative director. “My boss wants issue experts on most issues, and unfortunately, with our budget, that is just impossible.”  

A Senate chief of staff said: “This is a business, and we keep punishing ourselves by eliminating the tools necessary to run out business properly,” 

Among the findings:

  • Staff don’t have the right “knowledge, skills and abilities” to perform their jobs. Of the respondents, 83 percent said such expertise was “very important.” Just 15 percent were “very satisfied” with the same.
  • Lawmakers lack the time and resources to “understand, consider and deliberate” policy and legislation. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said it was “very important” for lawmakers to have adequate time and resources for such work. Only 6 percent were “very satisfied” with the amount allocated.
  • Congress needs to improve member and staff access to high quality, nonpartisan policy expertise within the legislative branch. Of the respondents, 81 percent said such resources are “very important.” Twenty-four percent were “very satisfied” with what they have. 
  • The technological infrastructure is not adequate to support members’ official duties. Sixty-percent of respondents said this was “very important.” Just 6 percent were “very satisfied.”

The report noted several factors that have contributed to the problems. Since the mid-1980s, staffing levels have fallen precipitously and staff pay has stagnated, making it difficult for offices to attract and retain qualified candidates.  

A 2010 study by the Sunlight Foundation found that House chiefs of staff could earn 40 percent more in the private sector than on the Hill and that former staffers who become lobbyists could see their pay increase by many multiples.

“The Hill is a difficult environment for retaining quality staff,” one Senate legislative director said, pointing to high pressure, tight deadlines, low pay, bad management and long hours as all contributing to the problem. 

“You can start out in politics after college and make your way forward without any skills except political ones,” a former House and Senate committee staff director said. “Going to work in Congress is less a career and more a stepping stone.”

The number of employees who work in House members’ personal offices is 20 percent fewer than 1985, and offices that provide institutional support, including the clerk, the sergeant-at-arms, and the chief administrative officer, have lost 83 percent of their staff over that time, the report said. In the Senate, personal office staffs are down 4 percent since 1985 and support staff is down 13 percent. 

Legislative branch spending has been far outpaced by other government agencies. Its budget, in constant dollars, has increased by 30 percent since 1985, while the executive branch budget increased almost four-fold, the report said. Most of that money was likely spent on technological updates and post-9/11 security needs, costs that have been compounded by the challenges of historic buildings, the report noted. But the House and Senate have nevertheless struggled to implement state-of-the art technology. 

“We seem to accept things that the private sector would never accept, just because, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done around here,’” a Senate chief of staff said. 

Public approval ratings, meanwhile, have tanked. Just 20 percent of Americans told Gallup in July that they approved of the job Congress was doing. That number, which peaked at 84 percent right after 9/11, has been below 30 percent since 2009.

Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation said she hoped her work would add to a growing body of work documenting how to improve Congress’ performance, a topic she said has not received as much attention as other efforts to improve citizen participation in American democracy. 

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