Heard on the Hill

How Committees Got Their Staffers

Ways and Means and Senate Finance were first panels to receive staff

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, right, and Texas Rep. Sam Johnson during a markup of the GOP tax bill in November. In the background, David Stewart, the panel’s majority staff director at the time, and Karen McAfee, the minority staff director. The Ways and Means Committee was the first one in the House to receive staff. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Recent estimates have put the number of staffers in the House and Senate at about 15,000. In 1789, there was one. 

Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania had just been made speaker, and the second order of business was to elect Virginia lawyer John Beckley as House clerk, the first of 35 people who have served in the role. 

For the first 100 years, staffers worked for either the entire House or committees. Through the 19th century, no individual members received personal staff. Only a few staffers worked on committees, and the role of “congressional staff” implied you worked on legislation and administrative items for the House and Senate as a whole, according to a 1993 report by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress

The clerk of the House was the chamber’s top post, and on the Senate side, the top staffer was the secretary of the Senate. There was also the architect of the Capitol position to continue construction of the Capitol, which was completed in 1826.

The first committees to receive staff were House Ways and Means and Senate Finance in 1856, when both hired full-time clerks. By 1890, there were 100 people — and growing — working on House and Senate committees combined.

Personal staff started to be hired around that time. In the 1890s, all lawmakers were given staff to provide clerical assistance in their personal offices. Everyone still worked in the Capitol because the first House and Senate office buildings were not yet built. (That didn’t happen until 1908.)

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 grew the size of personal and committee staffers. It allotted each House and Senate standing committee 10 staff members — six professional and four clerical.

Missouri Democrat Clarence Cannon, the House Appropriations chairman at the time, found these numbers excessive. So his committee was made exempt from the staffing provisions and was allowed to determine its own staffing levels.

But Cannon’s move backfired on him, history has shown. Today, House Appropriations is one of the most staffed committees in Congress, with about 50 staffers making up its majority staff. 

Committee staffing levels were further increased in the 1970s amid concerns in Congress that the executive branch resources had grown too strong, according to the 1993 joint committee report. The numbers reached that decade more closely resemble what we’re familiar with today. 

Like House Appropriations, there are exceptions to the mandated staffing levels. About 45 people currently work on the majority staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Today, about 1,000 people work on Senate committees, which now consists of 20 permanent committees, their subcommittees, four joint committees, and occasionally temporary committees, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Approximately 1,300 staffers work on House committees, which include 21 permanent committees, their subcommittees, the four joint committees with the Senate and the occasional temporary committees. 

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