How raising congressional staff pay could help drain the Swamp

· December 7, 2018  
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Have you ever wondered why it seems like Congress is really run by staffers fresh out of undergraduate political science programs and lobbyists, while it barely keeps pace in overseeing the executive bureaucracy? There are several reasons why.

Just to put things in perspective, Daniel Horowitz has already done some of the math on this issue (emphasis added):

The size of Congress is .001 percent of the executive branch and is dwarfed even by the size of individual executive departments. Even if we don’t include the cost of the federal programs and just factor in the discretionary spending to fuel the executive bureaucracy, it is still over 300 times larger than Congress. The budget of the Department of Education alone is 15 times larger than that of the entire legislative branch. Whenever you wonder why there is no voice for the forgotten American amidst the special interests fueling harmful government policies, just remember that even the few members of Congress who intuitively sympathize with us feel they lack the time, resources, knowledge, and energy to deal with it.

One of those resources is staff, which has become more and more scant in recent years.

A 2010 report from the Sunlight foundation found overall decreases in congressional policy job positions over the previous 25 years as well as real wage decreases for those who had the remaining jobs. The Congressional Research Service reports also show those average wages decreasing from 2009 to 2013.

You know who doesn’t offer meager pay to people with policy chops? K Street lobby shops. A 2013 study found that low pay was a driving force for many congressional staffers leaving their posts. Meanwhile, the numbers show that the average legislative staffer of Capitol Hill experience can typically forgo the long hours and relatively low pay of a Hill job by cashing in as a lobbyist after just a few years of experience.

So staff turnover in Congress ends up being higher than you might think. A 2017 report from the Congressional Management Foundation found that “there are no staff positions in Senate or House committees or personal offices with a median tenure of more than four years. That means most of the key staffers on Capitol Hill — the ones who directly support the policy and constituent engagement work of Senators and Representatives — are fairly new to their jobs.”

Combine that with the fact that the average House member’s constituency was almost twice as big in 2010 as it was in 1975, and you start to get the picture.

Why does this all matter? Because if you want a team to do anything successfully, you need to attract and retain talent. In order to do that, you need to provide the kind of compensation that will keep talent from leaving once they get a little experience under their belts. Otherwise, you end up with systemic brain drain.

This pay gap not only keeps the monster administrative state way ahead of the slim legislative branch, it also increases the Swamp’s overall swampiness by further empowering agenda-driven lobbyists to fill experience and manpower gaps on the Hill.

This doesn’t mean that we would have to explode the legislative branch’s budget in order for it to adequately compete. But legislators could take a revenue-neutral stance of decreasing the money for executive staff by the same amount they increase the legislative staff budget. Or they could get creative, take a page from the Trump administration, and instate a two-to-one policy, where every new legislative staff position means two fewer career bureaucrat jobs in administrative agencies.

The simple fact is that the federal government was never supposed to be as big in size or scope as it is today. Now that we’re confronted with a leviathan of this magnitude, we’re going to need to spend some more money on congressional staff if we ever want to shrink it.


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Author: Nate Madden

Nate Madden is CRTV’s congressional correspondent. Follow him @NateMaddenCRTV or send tips to [email protected].