Congress is Good at Shrinking One Part of Government

Your average House member represented 710,767 people in 2010. The same lawmaker represented 469,088 people in 1970. Despite the 52 percent increase in constituents, each House member today can have no more than 18 staff members, a limit that hasn’t changed since 1975.

The lawmakers also have a budget cap for their staffs. As salaries rise, they can afford fewer aides.

House committees and Senate staffs don’t face the same strictures that House members do, but lawmakers think they’ll get political benefits by running them on the cheap. As a group, committees and Senate members are getting by with less help.

The Congressional Research Services’ Ida Brudnick has been looking at staffs and finds that Congress is doing a bigger job today with fewer aides than lawmakers of 30 years ago.

Congress doesn’t get much credit for efficiency, but staffs are dealing with record constituent demands. The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that researches Congress, found in 2011 that constituent correspondence had increased an average of 548 percent in Senate offices between 2002 and 2010 and 158 percent in House offices.

That’s not to mention a 24-hour news cycle, a bigger administration that requires oversight, a wealthier and more aggressive lobbying industry than was the case when the House staff limit went into place in 1975, and new issues, such as cybersecurity, that are testing the skills of even profitable private sector businesses.

To deal with the constituents’ needs, members of Congress are putting more aides in district or state offices, leaving fewer in Washington.

What suffers in this equation is policy expertise. Lawmakers are calling on more specialists, including lobbyists, for help.

“It’s the outsourcing of expertise,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an advocacy group. “I’m a lobbyist. In the past, members of Congress would have their own ability to evaluate what I tell them. Now they are relying on me for basic information.”

Schuman, as a staffer for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote three reports in 2010 and 2012 on Congress’s self-imposed personnel squeeze.

Wading through a labyrinth of staffing data, he found that representatives and senators are shifting resources from Washington to district and state offices to handle the growing case work on behalf of constituents.

Schuman found that 49 percent of House personal office staffers worked in Washington in 2005, down from 62 percent in 1985. In the Senate, 61 percent of personal office staffers worked in Washington in 2005, down from 76 percent in 1979. 

Committee staffs, which handle the bulk of policymaking and are excluded from the above numbers, are suffering too.

Schuman found that House committees’ aides fell to 1,272 in 2005 from 2,146 in 1985. Senate committee staffs in the same years fell to 957 from 1,178.

There’s no reason to think that trend has changed since 2005. Congress decided to start tightening its belt in 2010, cutting House members’ allowances for three straight years and holding it more or less flat in fiscal 2014 and 2015. The Senate budget for office costs dropped 7.6 percent from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2014 and is flat in 2015.

Brudnick wrote that senators’ office budgets have about the same purchasing power now as they had in fiscal 2006, while House offices are working with about the same amount of money they had in 1996.

Lawmakers supplement their work forces by calling on subsidiary agencies, the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, to do work that House and Senate staffers used to do.

In an article in the Washington Monthly’s January/February 2015 issue, former Congressional Research Service analyst Kevin R. Kosar said that more than a decade ago, when he started with the agency, he had the freedom to analyze important policy issues and make recommendations for action to Congress.

Analysts today spend much of their time helping congressional case workers respond to constituents, he said.

“Today, it is not unusual for a CRS analyst to respond to 200 or 300 congressional requests annually. I once hit 660 in one year,” he wrote.

But the subsidiary organizations have their own pressures. CRS has reduced its staff from 730 employees to 600 in a decade’s time, exacerbating the shift in analyst responsibilities.

On the Hill, policy expertise has declined, but so has oversight. Tiny oversight committees today must contend with executive branch agencies that employ dozens of senior executives and other top-level civil servants.

Congress can call on the Government Accountability Office to help, but its staff, half the size it was in the early 1990s, has shrunk to its lowest level since 1935. As a result, the GAO uses a greater percentage of staff resources to produce the annual reports Congress has mandated in various laws, rather than exploring new policy terrain.

In House and Senate offices, visitors are often surprised to find them staffed by people in their 20s, many in their first jobs.

If they talked to the more experienced aides they’d find out why: Many are looking for new gigs. Last year, the Congressional Management Foundation reported that four in five Hill office managers were worried that cuts to benefits and the prolonged salary freeze were causing staff turnover.

“It is a big strain,” says Bradford Fitch, the foundation’s president. “People are stunned that any business with a massive increase in constituent interest would have zero increase in labor.”

Staffers surveyed by the foundation were less polite.

Said one: “If you wanted a legislative branch run by K Street lobbyists and 25 year-old staffers, mission accomplished.”

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