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Will COVID-19 close the revolving door?

Low compensation, leading to high turnover among aides, fuels the dysfunction and diminished clout of today’s legislative branch, a new study states

The Capitol dome is seen at dawn on Aug. 27, 2020.
The Capitol dome is seen at dawn on Aug. 27, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Taxpayers subsidize future lobbyists. 

They do it by paying congressional aides too little to keep them on Capitol Hill for long enough to profit off their experience while offering them entrée to lucrative gigs on K Street. 

That’s part of the bleak assessment of congressional staffing in a new report, aptly dubbed “Congressional Brain Drain,” which concludes that relatively low compensation, leading to high turnover among aides, fuels the dysfunction and diminished clout of today’s legislative branch. 

“Most people already have their mind set on leaving, and that’s what really struck me,” said Timothy M. LaPira, a political science professor at James Madison University, who wrote the report with Alexander C. Furnas for the New America think tank. “It’s chaos. As an organization trying to retain brain power and institutional memory and know-how, it’s a real problem. So Congress is just not operating at a level it once was.” 

The typical staffer, who is between 26 and 30 years old, has an eye out for the next job. And 43 percent told the report’s authors they wanted to shift to the private sector, while about half were looking to move up the chain within the government, according to the research conducted in 2017 and 2019.

But with the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the political turmoil of this year’s elections, has the private sector lost some of its sheen for these weary aides? Is the revolving door from Congress to K Street still a viable option for congressional aides looking to cash in?  

K Street has not been immune to the layoffs and salary reductions stemming from the pandemic-rocked market. But clients still need help navigating Capitol Hill. 

“Certainly, there has been some impact in the job market in some loss of employment as a result of the pandemic, but it’s not as dramatic as it could have been,” said Stephanie Tomasso, who leads the trade and professional association practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive recruiting firm. “We’re seeing that strategic hiring has continued after what we saw as a little bit of a dip in the spring.”  

Certain sectors, in particular, are on the hunt for new strategists, including the drug industry’s main lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which is hiring a new head of public affairs, with Russell Reynolds guiding the search. 

Lobbyist Stephanie Silverman, who runs the firm Venn Strategies, said her firm is taking a cautious approach to bringing on new employees. “We tend only to hire when we can see out 12 months, and because of the pandemic it’s harder to have a line of sight,” she said. “We’ve hired, but we’ve hired modestly.”

Congressional aides with bosses in a safe seat or who have jobs insulated from the whims of voters may opt to remain slogging on the Hill until the pandemic ebbs, she said. 

“They may not be the best-paying jobs, and they should pay more, but they are stable and have good benefits,” she said. “There is risk in the private sector that didn’t exist before.”

Lobbying firms, trade associations and the in-house operations of corporations are also evaluating their hiring with the November elections top of mind, sizing up whether they have sufficient experience and reach with Senate Democrats who could win control of the chamber. 

To the extent that some K Street job opportunities have dried up, it seems a largely temporary phenomenon — which isn’t great news for the institution of Congress in the long term. 

LaPira, who wrote the 2017 book “Revolving Door Lobbying,” and Furnas recommend in their report that Congress take new steps to restrict the gateway to the private sector, arguing that the current cooling-off periods, sidelining many ex-staffers from directly lobbying their former colleagues for a year, are insufficient. 

“Congress needs to offer staff a reason to stay,” they wrote in the report.

In an interview, LaPira acknowledged that with résumés always at the ready, the Hill is a buyer’s labor market, meaning it’s always easy to find a qualified replacement when someone departs. At the same time, lawmakers have shifted much of their staff to district offices, LaPira said, to help with constituent services and activities aimed at winning reelection, not policymaking. On the other side, K Street beckons. 

“No wonder people are leaving before they hit the ripe old age of 30,” LaPira said. Although the pandemic has quickened a shift for congressional aides to work remotely, it’s unlikely to result in the kind of dramatic overhaul that would lead to bigger salaries and stem the flow to lobbying jobs. Such an effort would require bicameral, bipartisan cooperation. The two-year House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, where LaPira worked as a fellow, has taken a hard look at such ideas, but it has only limited jurisdiction in the House.

Wrestling power and policy chops back from K Street, should Congress decide to do that, will take a project that extends beyond this session.

Kate Ackley is a senior lobbying, politics and campaign finance writer for CQ Roll Call.

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