OPINION — When I arrived on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1983 for my internship with a House member, I had never stepped foot in a congressional office building. I walked into the office, was led to a corner in the back and sat down in front of an IBM Selectric typewriter. (For younger readers, you can see examples at the Smithsonian.)
A rather intimidating young woman with an impressive title, legislative correspondent, sat me down and handed me a giant tabbed notebook. It was organized by issue topic, each with a paragraph on the lawmaker’s position.
“Your job,” she said, “is to read that pile of constituent mail, assess what issue the constituent is writing about, and retype the contents of that notebook topic into the letter. NO EDITORIALIZING!” This was how members and citizens corresponded … 35 years ago.
As the freshman members who will be part of the 116th Congress orient to Capitol Hill this month, there are things that have changed about the job, and things that have not. (For more on the current requirements, the Congressional Management Foundation has published a new “Job Description for a Member of Congress.”)
In the “What’s Changed?” department, the resources that help members do their jobs have simultaneously gotten better and worse.
Total support staff in the institution has been cut significantly, with some estimates at 20 percent fewer staffers. The Congressional Research Service, committee staff and technical resources (such as the Office of Technology Assessment) have been reduced. A CMF survey of senior congressional staff suggests there is a great need to improve Congress’ access to nonpartisan policy experts, technological infrastructure, and general capacity to perform its functions.
However, individual resources for freshman lawmakers have improved. Congress now provides equipment, a website and institutional staff support (such as the First Call office through the House chief administrative officer) to new members on swearing-in day. Previously these resources were doled out over weeks or months.
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Members will also find fewer perks than their predecessors enjoyed. The public and the media still report on Capitol Hill like it was the 1970s, suggesting lavish trips, fancy gifts and opulent meals are the norm. One former chief of staff from that era described a Christmastime ritual of lobbyists pushing carts through congressional office buildings, passing out top-shelf liquor to senior staff office by office. “I used to fill up my liquor cabinet for a year from those visits,” he said.
Now, if a lobbyist takes a staff assistant to lunch or dinner, it could mean five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
In the “What Hasn’t Changed?” department, the size of personal office staffs has remained the same since 1979 (which is ensconced by law at 18 full-time staffers and four part-time staff in the House).
Keep in mind that the size of constituencies has increased by 50 percent during this time, mathematically challenging members and staff to serve more with less. Constituents’ expectations haven’t changed much, though. Members get sworn in at 12 p.m. on Jan. 3, and constituents will expect them to solve the world’s problems by 12:01 p.m.
The workload hasn’t changed much either. CMF surveyed members of the House of Representatives and found an average of 70 hours a week when they’re in session.
On the positive side, another thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of Americans the electorate sends to serve in Congress. For more than three decades, I’ve had the honor to work with Congress as a reporter, staffer, vendor, researcher and consultant. Sure, the occasional crook or cad makes his way to Capitol Hill — but that’s the exception. Congress is largely comprised of dedicated public servants doing the best they can to serve their constituents and the nation.
Like others who came before them, this freshman class will come with gusto and enthusiasm, fueled by the belief they can change the world. Some of them will do just that and become great statesmen and stateswomen. Others may make their mark in history in smaller but important ways.
What hasn’t changed is the great feeling of renewal that comes every two years with a new Congress — the opportunity to continue the mission set out by our founders to create “a more perfect union.”
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.