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Take it from top Hill staffers: Congress doesn’t function as it should

Survey asks core ‘institutionalists’ to weigh in

Caution tape appears at a sidewalk construction site on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, near the Capitol in May 2021.
Caution tape appears at a sidewalk construction site on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, near the Capitol in May 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress isn’t working, but at least staffers agree there’s a problem. 

That’s the takeaway from a new survey of senior Hill aides, who overwhelmingly complained that their workplace does not “function as a democratic legislature should.”

Both parties sounded the alarm, including 80 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans who responded. 

“I think that’s important to hang on to, because it’s something that can be leveraged moving forward,” said Kathy Goldschmidt, director of strategic initiatives for the Congressional Management Foundation, which joined with the Partnership for Public Service to conduct the survey.

Both nonprofits say their mission is to build a better government, and they wanted to hear from a small but key group of people — top staffers who know the legislative branch inside and out. They got responses from 128 of them, mostly senior managers who have worked a decade or more in Congress. 

Those insiders gave a damning view of how partisanship can derail their work. While a whopping 96 percent of each party said they believe staff need to collaborate across the aisle to meet the needs of the nation, just 13 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans said they saw strong incentives to do so. And they agreed that bills have died untimely deaths because of polarization over the past few years, with all Democrats saying “noncontroversial legislative ideas have failed,” compared to 89 percent of Republicans.

“The incentive structure for collaboration is lower than at any point in my career,” said one Senate legislative director anonymously quoted in the report. 

Just 5 percent said they were “very satisfied” with Congress’ current staffing levels, research capability and infrastructure. 

It’s not the first time the Congressional Management Foundation has produced what it calls its “State of The Congress” report, but this year’s edition was different. 

“We expanded it to include areas that many people feel are more central to the institution,” including civility, said president and CEO Brad Fitch.

They started by reaching out to 400 staffers they identified as “knowledgeable institutionalists” from a range of personal, committee, leadership and support offices across the Capitol complex and in districts. Of the 128 who responded and answered the demographic questions, 82 percent were white, and nearly three-quarters hailed from the House side. The respondents were split nearly equally between men and women, and 46 percent worked in Democratic offices, 39 percent worked in Republican offices and 15 percent were nonpartisan.

Fitch said his group plans to produce an annual version of this report around when the president delivers their State of the Union address beginning in 2024 in hopes of tracking whether Congress becomes a more functional institution. 

He has an interest in seeing progress, since his group aims to build trust in Congress and has offered staff trainings for years. The picture is not all grim, Fitch said, pointing to last year’s 21 percent boost to the funds that lawmakers use to pay their aides. Moves like that could prevent brain drain, but it won’t happen overnight, he said. 

“Decisions and actions taken by the Congress may need some time for their full effects to be felt,” Fitch said.

The cohort he surveyed may be closest to the levers of power, holding senior roles and management positions, but many believe Congress’ woes begin at the bottom, where some junior staffers make less than a living wage. A sea change could be coming, after the House cleared the way for legislative staffers to begin unionizing later this month if they choose.

Fitch said people can work inside the institution to improve it, citing the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as one source of ideas.

“While we can be helpful on some levels, and we’re hopeful that this research is seen as helpful. In the end, it’s Congress’ responsibility to develop what they think they can do to improve,” he said.

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