Chapter 3: Improve Congressional Capacity

Across Capitol Hill and in district offices all over the country, thousands of congressional staff work daily to make a positive impact in the lives of the people they serve. From caseworkers to staff assistants, staff interact daily with constituents to help with diverse requests, including social security benefits, D.C. tours, and public policy questions. Congressional staff are dedicated public servants who came to Congress to do meaningful work. They choose careers on Capitol Hill and in district offices despite the long hours, the lack of job security, and lower pay compared to what they could make in the executive branch and private sector.[79] 

But while Congress is fortunate to attract talented and hard-working staff, it often struggles to keep them long-term. Turnover rates for House staff are high, with most positions in Member offices turning over every two years or so.[80] While a great deal of staff movement is from one Capitol Hill office to another, the typical staffer leaves the Hill altogether after four or five years. These staff departure trends have long-term implications for Congress. When staff leave, offices lose their policy and procedural expertise, leaving more junior staff who are often juggling multiple responsibilities at once and needing to play “catch up” on the issues of importance to the district.  

Retaining experienced staff will strengthen Congress as a whole, making it more efficient and effective on behalf of the American people. The Committee, through a series of hearings and briefings, closely examined the question of staff retention in order to determine steps Congress can take to keep talented staff on the Hill. 

Staff leave for many reasons, but two of the biggest are limited benefits and low pay. Compared to pay in the executive branch and the private sector, the pay in Congress is significantly lower.[81] And while standard congressional benefit offerings include health insurance, retirement savings accounts, and transit, there is variation between offices. Some congressional offices offer additional benefits like student loan repayment and family leave, but these benefits or how they’re applied are not standard across all offices.[82] In a competitive labor market, benefit offerings are what set organizations apart and can be vital in retaining and recruiting top talent.[83] Given the intense workload of Capitol Hill, this is particularly true for congressional staff. And while allowing individual Member offices to offer different benefits packages is designed to provide offices with tools to attract talented staff, more often this fractured system can further a lack of understanding of the full scope of benefits available to staff. Ultimately, the lack of equal pay and staff benefits puts Congress at a hiring disadvantage compared to not only the private sector, but also the executive branch.

The lack of competitive pay and benefits also impacts the diversity of congressional staff. While there have been some successful efforts to encourage diversity, particularly by making funds available to pay interns, there is still a deficit of congressional staff on Capitol Hill who are reflective of the diversity of experiences and background in America. This has a domino effect, reflected in both the recruitment and retention of minority staff at all levels. According to a recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “only 13.7% of senior House staff are people of color even though they make up 38% of the U.S. population at large.” Diversity among House staff is most present in the offices of nonwhite Members of Congress.[84] There is more Congress can do to attract individuals who represent the diverse backgrounds and views that exist across the country.

The Committee held a hearing on June 20, 2019 on cultivating diversity and improving staff retention[85]and held several Member listening sessions, including three virtual discussions, on the topic.[86] Expert witnesses presented testimony on the value of diverse workplaces and employee recruitment best practices. In addition, Committee staff held several in-person and virtual listening sessions with congressional staff, many of which focused on challenges specific positions to staff positions, like chiefs of staff and staff assistants.[87] The purpose of these conversations and formal hearings was to begin the public process of examining one of the most complex topics in the Committee’s mandate: “staff recruitment, diversity, retention, and compensation and benefits.”[88]

The recommendations described in this chapter address the specific staffing-related concerns presented to Committee Members at the June 20, 2019 hearing and additional briefings. However, these reforms were viewed as a starting point in what would likely be a long process of addressing a broad range of congressional staffing concerns.[89] This chapter focuses specifically on the centralization and standardization of staff benefits aimed to increase retention and diversity. In addition, other recommendations detailed in this chapter, offer solutions to increase staff pay and benefits by removing administrative costs that currently fall under the Members Representation Allowance budget.[90]

This chapter begins with a brief overview of the employee benefits landscape and describes why offering competitive benefits is essential to retaining employees. It then looks at staff diversity in Congress and examines ways Congress can incorporate diversity and inclusion best practices that are often seen in the private sector. The chapter concludes with a more detailed review of the recommendations to streamline and reorganize House human resources.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducts comprehensive annual surveys of employers across the country to gather information on the types of benefits offered to employees. The survey data offers important insight into benefit trends, which reveal what organizations are offering in order to attract and retain talented employees. Organizations recognize that in order to remain competitive, they must routinely adjust their benefit offerings. SHRM found in its 2019 survey that compared to the year before, employers were more likely to increase offerings in all benefits.[91]

Figure 3.1: Trends in Employee Benefits, 2019 SHRM survey[92]

figure 3.1

 

Source: Society for Human Resource Management (2019)

Employers rank health care and retirement benefits as the most important. Twenty percent of organizations surveyed in 2019 increased both their health care and wellness benefits over the previous year and 12 percent increased their investment and retirement benefits. Employers also view paid leave as very important; 15 percent of organizations surveyed increased this benefit over the previous year. Flexible work, career development, and family-friendly benefits also rank high, with approximately 14 percent of organizations increasing these benefits for their employees.[93]

The SHRM survey found that over 90 percent of organizations surveyed in 2019 offer paid leave of some type to their employees. In addition, employers continue to offer generous paid leave for new parents, with about one-third of organizations offering paid leave to mothers and slightly fewer to fathers. Organizations with workforces made up primarily of adults under 40, or those looking to recruit greater numbers of younger workers, will likely see even stronger pushes for paid parental and family leave. Congress fits squarely into this category. Paid leave is associated with increased productivity, increased engagement, better physical wellness, and positive employer brand.[94] Congress recently took a positive step forward and provided congressional employees with 12 weeks of paid parental leave. While this provision, which was included in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, is important, more can be done.[95]

SHRM’s 2019 survey also found that remote work continues to rise in popularity, and, as a result, telecommuting of all types is increasing. Forty percent of organizations offer part-time telecommuting. The COVID-19 pandemic has also reinforced the acceptance of working from home. Compressed workweeks are now offered by one-third of organizations, and four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less per week are offered by 15 percent. Many federal agencies offer alternative schedule options such as flexible work schedule and/or compressed work schedule programs for their employees.[96] Because Congress does not collect data on Member office policies, it’s difficult to know how many Member offices had remote work policies in place prior to the COVID 19 pandemic. Conversations with district staff (described in Chapter 9), as well as D.C. staff, however, suggest that many offices were unprepared for a transition to remote work.

Employees see benefits as a major factor in whether or not to stay with their current employer, according to a study by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and SHRM.[97] Sixty-six percent of congressional staffers ranked health care/medical benefits as “very important,” followed by 61 percent pointing to retirement and savings plans as “very important.” The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 required Members to receive their health care benefits through the D.C. Health Exchange rather than the through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHB). And the Office of Personnel Management later determined congressional staff must also purchase their health insurance through the D.C. Health Exchange.

Prior to passage of the ACA, congressional staff were enrolled in the FEHB; today, the FEHB covers almost nine million federal employees and their families.[98] The transition to the D.C. exchange has been particularly challenging for some district-based staff as finding local health providers who accept patients covered by the D.C. exchange is difficult. For many congressional staff, executive branch, private sector health care plans, and plans offered through their home-state exchanges are more attractive options.

The CMF/SHRM study also reports that a top reason congressional staff leave their current job or current office is inadequate opportunities for professional development. Staff who want to move up the Hill career ladder typically must wait for a position to open, then learn the position on the job. This standard path can make it difficult for employees to compete with more experienced colleagues. In addition, the pool of high-level Hill jobs is smaller (and thus more competitive) because top positions turn over less frequently. SHRM’s 2019 survey found that professional development was a “top benefit trend,” with 87 percent of employers offering professional development opportunities, and 14 percent of organizations reporting that they increased professional development benefits offerings over the previous year.

The Congressional Staff Academy offers a broad range of professional development courses for staff, but tends to be an underutilized resource. During the COVID 19 pandemic, the Staff Academy moved many of its courses online, opening access to staff working from home. Online courses are particularly appealing to district staff who often miss out on in-person professional development opportunities. As mentioned in Chapter 9, the Committee encourages the Staff Academy to offer more online training so that staff can access training “on demand.” The Committee also recognizes that the Staff Academy is uniquely positioned to help new staff learn how to do their jobs successfully, while helping current staff build upon their skill set. By offering staff certifications in job training, the Staff Academy could provide staff with learning opportunities that are both tangible and valuable.

Professional development opportunities provide congressional staffers with potential access to the higher paying jobs they need to afford cost of living expenses, including paying down student loans. One-third of adults under the age of 30 have student loan debt and college students today are taking out loans at a higher rate than in the past. Pew Research Center reports that “college graduates ages 25 to 39 with loans are more likely than graduates without loans to say they are either finding it difficult to get by financially or are just getting by (22 percent vs. 11 percent).[99] While a student loan repayment program is available to congressional staff, offices are limited in the overall amount they receive and make available to individual staffers. And because staff, like all Americans, have to pay taxes on the loan benefits they receive, they must budget accordingly. In response to the COVID 19 pandemic, Congress included a provision in the CARES Act allowing student loan borrowers to skip payments for six months and avoid taxes on the benefits they receive.[100] Committee Members agreed that this provision should be reauthorized beyond the pandemic so that borrowers aren’t taxed on the loan benefits they receive.

As for leaving Congress altogether, staffers cite the need for better balance between work and personal life as a top factor. Capitol Hill can be stressful, and the hours can be long. While some employees thrive in this environment, the burn out factor can be high, especially for employees who have families. Benefits geared towards providing employees with a better work/life balance might help mitigate the high turnover rate. 

The Committee recognized that standardized benefits offered to congressional staff needed to be expanded and adjusted on a regular basis for Congress to attract and retain top talent. As a first step, the Committee sought to clarify what benefits are currently available and make it easier for congressional staff to access those benefits. Because the House operates like 435 individual small businesses, there is no centralized human resources department where staff can easily seek benefits information. As Chair Derek Kilmer said during a hearing on benefits and diversity:

“I thought it would be a good idea to bring in the point person who handles Human Resources for House Staff so they could talk about what benefits are available to staff. Then I found out that person doesn’t exist. There literally is not an HR point of contact for House staff.”
Chair Derek Kilmer, June 20, 2019

In addition, Committee Members and staff discovered that many Hill employees don’t know about course offerings available through the Congressional Staff Academy or various physical and mental health wellness programs they can access. By putting all benefit offerings under one roof and easing–and encouraging—access to these benefits, the committee offered solutions to address a persistent “information deficit” among staffers. These resources should be regularly advertised, easily accessible and championed by managers on the Hill.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to retaining talented congressional staff is low pay. Compared to executive branch and private sector salaries for comparable jobs, the Hill pays much less. In fact, low pay is the top reason congressional staff give for leaving their jobs.[101] According to a recent report on long-term trends in congressional capacity and staff pay, the budget allocated for office staff hires fell by 10 percent from 2013 to 2017. Rule changes in 2010 requiring congressional staff to move from the FEHB system to the D.C. health exchange, along with caps on staff salaries, have had the overall effect of reducing personnel expenditures.[102] Consequently, many staff positions have seen a decline in salary, even as workloads have increased.[103] The staff compensation charts below depict these trends.

Figure 3.2: Staff Compensation, per job title

figure 3.2

Note: Dollars are inflation-adjusted using national CPI-U. Data calculated from “The Congress and Its Experts” dataset (Corson, Furnas, Lapira 2019). Data not available for the 109th Congress. Source: New America.

As a consequence of these trends, most staffers do not see working in Congress as a long-term career option. About 65 percent plan to leave Congress within five years—including those who would like to continue working in the public sector.[104] Experienced staff take their years of institutional and policy knowledge with them when they leave the Hill. These long-term staffers are typically replaced by less experienced—and less expensive—staff and the cycle begins anew.

“The effects of such low wages are compounded given that D.C.-based congressional aides live in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country and are increasingly likely to come to Congress owing large amounts in student loans. As a result, Congress has struggled to retain qualified and effective staff. Staffers regularly depart Congress after short tenures, trading their congressional experience and connections for higher salaries offered by special interest and lobbying organizations.”
The American Political Science Association Task Force on Congressional Reform[105]

Figure 3.3 below depicts high levels of congressional staff turnover, by position. While some of this turnover reflects staffers leaving one Hill job for another, turnover at the higher levels is more often off the Hill, to higher paying jobs.

Figure 3.3: Turnover and Staff Tenure by Position

figure 3.3.

Source: Data provided by Dr. Casey Burgat

As discussed in Chapter 10, the constant churn of congressional staff off the Hill leaves Congress overly reliant on outside experts, like lobbyists. In testimony before the Committee, Dr. Lee Drutman noted that by cutting spending on staff, Congress has diminished its primary source of expertise.[106]

“Spending money on Congress is a bargain. The federal budget is $4.8 trillion. Legislative appropriations is $3.97 billion or just 0.08 percent of the federal budget. 99.92 percent of the federal budget goes elsewhere. Better congressional oversight of the executive branch could actually save taxpayers money.”
Dr. Lee Drutman[107]

Central to the discussion of staff pay is the means by which Members pay staff—the Member Resource Allocation (MRA). The MRA, which averaged $1.369 million in FY 2018, is the sole source of discretionary funding for Members’ official duties. Members must use their MRA to cover employee salaries, travel expenses for commuting between the district office and D.C., official communications including telephone town halls, new office equipment, computers and software, and other official expenses associated with running their congressional office. Member MRAs vary based on:

  1. distance between the Member’s district and Washington, D.C.;
  2. the cost of office space in the Member’s district, as reflected in GSA inventory;
  3. the number of non-business mailing addresses in a Member’s district.

MRAs are funded by legislative branch appropriations. But within the legislative branch budget, a growing share of costs have been driven by non-policy entities like the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police.[108] The MRA was cut significantly from 2011 to 2013, then held roughly constant from 2014 to 2015. It saw small increases from 2016 to 2018, but its real purchasing power remains around a quarter below its 2010 peak—somewhere around the level of 2000. In contrast, total federal spending in 2018 was more than 50 percent higher in real terms than in 2000.

Figure 3.4: Cost Change in Legislative Branch Budget Components Over Time

figure 3.4

Data provided by Daniel Schuman at Demand Progress. Does not include all budget components. Shown in 2019 dollars.

While many goods and services are provided separate from the MRA, including D.C. office space, furniture, and staff benefits (including healthcare, retirement and Social Security contributions, life insurance, student loan repayment, and transit benefit), Members are restricted in terms of what they can pay staff. This is because since 2000, Congress has not approved substantial increases to MRA budgets. By holding the MRA budget constant, “the House has chosen to reduce its spending on staffing and overhead by 10 cents on the dollar in just five years. The consequence has been a marked decline in staffing.”[109]

Figure 3.5: MRA Components and Personnel Expenditures

figure 3.5

Note: Dollars are inflation-adjusted using CPI-U. Specific component amounts obtained from Legislative Branch Appropriations reports. Aggregate personal office personnel spending amounts calculated from annualized House Statements of Disbursement. Source: New America

The bottom line is that Congress cannot adequately tackle the problem of staff churn without paying staff higher salaries. And Congress cannot pay higher staff salaries unless it invests more money in the institution. Members rightfully fear the political consequences of voting to increase spending on Congress, especially when the institution is already viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans. At the same time, the American people want a functional Congress that is capable of fulfilling its Article One obligations.

“By sheer math, even doubling the money spent on Congress would be tiny compared to the overall federal budget. The 2018 federal budget included $2.1 billion to fund the House ($1.2 billion) and the Senate ($919 million). That’s 0.05 percent of a $4.1 trillion total federal budget.”
American Political Science Association Congressional Reform Task Force[110]

Until Members view the legislative branch as worthy as investment as the executive branch, Congress will continue to lose capacity and thus effectiveness to serve the American people. In addition to the recommendations discussed below to directly address staff and congressional capacity, the Committee considered other ways to alleviate the pressure on the MRA by removing several standard administrative costs from the Member budget. These recommendations are detailed in Chapters 7-10.

Providing staff with competitive benefits and pay is one part of the recruitment and retention puzzle. Staff also need a work environment that reflects and values a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. The 116th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in history, and congressional staff should represent the diversity of constituents around the country. As Dr. Alexander Alonso, Chief Knowledge Officer at SHRM, said in his testimony before the Committee:[111]

“While benefits offerings are critical to securing top talent, it is equally important that Congress address inclusion and diversity when discussing a modern workforce. More than one in five voting Members (22 percent) of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are racial or ethnic minorities, making the 116th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. As a result, Capitol Hill staff should also reflect a diverse workforce and representation of constituents around the country.” 
Dr. Alexander Alonso, June 20, 2019

To help Members recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, the House established an Office of Diversity and Inclusion as part of the rules package for the 116th Congress.[112] While party-based diversity initiatives have existed in Congress, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion formalizes the House’s commitment to promoting “…policies which assist member offices in hiring and retaining a diverse workforce.” “Congressional staffers directly impact the lives and wellbeing of millions of Americans,” according to the office, “and these staffers should reflect our rich diversity.”[113]

Because there is no routine internal survey of congressional staff demographics, obtaining a reliable picture of staff diversity is challenging. In addition to developing a comprehensive diversity plan, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will collect staff demographic data—an important first step towards understanding the composition of current Hill staff. Under the direction of the FY 2019 Legislative Branch appropriations report and House Rules for the 116th Congress, the House’s Chief Administrative Office (CAO) surveyed staff in 2019 on diversity and pay issues.[114] This survey provided valuable feedback about the type of people who serve as staff in Congress, as well as information on pay and benefits across demographics. Yet as only the first of its kind, the survey provided a snapshot in time. Valuable efforts like this should take place on a regular basis; Congress cannot improve on issues of staff and diversity without understanding where it currently stands.

A few outside organizations have also tried to capture diversity information via surveys of congressional offices and other data collection techniques. For example, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies surveyed House offices in 2018[115] and reported the following:

Figure 3.6: Findings from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Survey, 2018

People of color make up 38 percent of the U.S. population, but only 13.7 percent of all top House staff.

Both white Democrats and white Republicans hire overwhelmingly white top staff, even though their districts are surprisingly diverse

Latinx Members represent districts that are much more Latinx than their top staff.

There are no Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, or Native Americans who serve as full committee staff directors or leadership office chiefs of staff, policy directors, or communications directors.

Women account for almost 61 percent of Black top staffers, almost 45 percent of Latinx top staffers, and just over 31 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders top staffers.

The lack of congressional staff demographic data extends to interns. There is no institution-wide recordkeeping about who interns on Capitol Hill and whether internship opportunities are allocated equitably to women, racial minorities, or students from less privileged backgrounds. Pay Our Interns commissioned a report in 2020[116] to examine racial representation among interns in the House and found uneven access to internship opportunities. Congressional internships are the primary pipeline to jobs on the Hill, and disparities in who gets internships leads to a less diverse congressional workforce. Figure 3.7 illustrates some of the report’s findings: 

Figure 3.7: Summer 2019 Interns Compared to the National Undergraduate Student Population by Race

figure 3.7

Note: Data from Pay our Interns 2020 Report[117]

Additionally, an R Street Institute report examined data from all 45 House and Senate committees to provide a comprehensive committee-by-committee look at the tenure, pay and gender balance of committee staffs. The report highlights vastly different experiences that men and women have on the Hill, even when performing the same job. When workers were sorted by job category—legislative assistant, communications, senior staff—men out-earned women in every category except administration. The smallest pay gap was at the senior staff level, where men earned $1,000 more per year, on average. The largest gap was in communications, where men out-earned women by roughly $15,000 per year.[118]

Recognizing the need to incorporate diversity and inclusion measures into the congressional staff recruitment and retention process, the Committee solicited expert advice on best practices. At a June 20, 2019 hearing, the Committee heard testimony from experts who shared what organizations and businesses are doing to diversify their workforces and promote inclusion in the workplace. Laura Liswood, author of The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity, described several best practices that successful companies employ, including making diversity and inclusion part of the culture and a highest priority for senior leadership. She also noted that there are unconscious beliefs, perceptions, archetypes, associations, and biases that play into whom we hire and how we evaluate others. Cultivating an awareness of these biases should also be prioritized.[119]

 “Historically certain groups have been overrepresented in positions of power, influence, economic benefits, jobs and others have been underrepresented.  This pattern is seen in Congressional staff offices.”
Laura Liswood, June 20, 2019

Another expert witness, Dr. Kwasi Mitchell, Principal and Chief Inclusion Officer at Deloitte Consulting, explained that inclusion is about every day actions and highlighted  behaviors that organizations can promote to empower people with actionable steps on how they can personalize, identify, model, and advance inclusion in the workplace:[120]

“We find that more and more that strong inclusive cultures also include an element of purpose and dedication to the greater good. In fact, purpose-driven work is one of the top factors that today’s workforce is seeking. Few organizations have as strong a purpose as that of Congress, and it is an outstanding foundation for the continuation and scaling of your diversity and inclusion efforts.”
Dr. Kwasi Mitchell, June 20, 2019

During the COVID 19 pandemic, the Committee also dedicated three virtual discussions to the topic of boosting staff capacity and diversity. Experts from the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Congressional Reform briefed Committee Members on their staffing research and recommendations, noting that minority staffers are far less likely to obtain leadership positions in congressional offices and tend to experience larger pay gaps.[121] In addition to recommending that Congress provide the Office of Diversity and Inclusion with consistent institutional support and resources, Task Force members recommended modernizing congressional job listing and resume bank services as a way to increase minority access to congressional employment opportunities.[122]

Figure 3.8. Congressional Staff Pay, by Position and Ethnicity

figure 3.8

Source: Data compiled by Dr. Casey Burgat

Former leadership staffers from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus also shared with Committee Members their perspectives on the value of diversity in staffing. Maria Meier, former director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, explained how Congress’ demographic caucuses give Members and staff additional opportunities to address the issues impacting minority communities across congressional districts.[123] Diverse staff bring different backgrounds and experiences to their jobs, which is important when working with diverse constituencies.

As Congress takes action to recruit and retain talented employees and attract a diverse workforce, SHRM recommends that it should also consider modernizing its job application and posting process. “The employment process for Capitol Hill is antiquated, not transparent, and vastly different from that of the private sector, which is an impediment to attracting high-quality diverse candidates.”[124] As anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill knows, job openings are often learned by word of mouth. This further deters people without connections to the Hill from applying for jobs for which they’re qualified. As Kemba Hendrix, director of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said in a March 15, 2019 New York Times article:[125]

“This is a place where who you know does, at times, affect how you are able to access employment. The ability to access networks and become familiar within those networks takes time.”
Kemba Hendrix

By voting to create the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the beginning of the 116th Congress, the chamber took an important first step towards putting some of these practices into place. The work of improving staff diversity would also be aided by a centralized human resources department in the House. Such an office could help with recruitment and retention, perform diversity audits, identify best practices, and help to collect and compile data that could assist the House in making routine benefit adjustments.

Recommendations

Conclusion

The recommendations described in this chapter reflect the Committee’s commitment to improving staff diversity, recruitment, and retention. Members view staff as the backbone of Congress; without them, the institution would not function. Congress is fortunate to attract such talented and hard-working staff, but ultimately has a hard time retaining them. The typical staffer leaves the Hill after four or five years, which is right about the time they’ve picked up a lot of institutional knowledge and policy expertise.

For a lot of staffers, the desire to serve the public is eventually outweighed by the inherent need for a better work/life balance, and better pay to afford housing, support families, and put kids through college. This reality puts Congress at a disadvantage compared to the executive branch and the private sector.

The Committee believes that Congress should create an environment that encourages the best staffers to stay. These recommendations should be viewed as a starting point in a much-needed, comprehensive process of addressing a broad range of congressional staffing concerns.

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