Report: Bad Pay, Long Hours, Lure of Greener Grass, Leads to Capitol Hill Exodus

September 24, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol, Aug. 5, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Thanks to its woefully low pay and long hours, Capitol Hill is proving to be a “funnel” to lucrative jobs in lobbying, leaving congressional offices in a perpetual state of brain drain, a new report has found.

Published by New America, the public policy think tank formerly known as the New America Foundation, the report paints a bracing picture in which a decline in legislative capacity is coinciding with evermore polarization in the halls of power and surging political party competition.

As a result, authors Alexandra Furnas and Timothy LaPira write, “legislative staff in Washington are asked to do more and more, with less and less.”

“For the most part,” they added, “working on the Hill is viewed as an entry-level position for K Street, rather than a stepping stone for a career in public service.”

They base their conclusions on data collected in the 2017 and 2019 Congressional Capacity Surveys, and information they collected in what they said is “the most comprehensive time-series cross-sectional survey of congressional staffers’ professional backgrounds, career paths, policy views, technical knowledge, substantive expertise, and job experiences ever conducted.”

Furnas and LaPira said this data flies in the face of preconceived notions of how things “really” work, and that their hope is institution-minded members and the political reform community “seriously reconsider” how Congress recruits, prepares, develops, and retains its staff.

Among their key findings are:

  • That between 40 and 45% of congressional staffers see the private sector as their next career step, and roughly half of them want to become lobbyists;
  • Staff resources have shifted. The share of total staffer full-time equivalents dedicated to Washington, D.C., offices has fallen from more than 70% in the 1970s to 50% in recent years;
  • There are fewer resources to pay staff. In the House of Representatives, the budget allocated for office staff hires fell by 10% from 2013 to 2017.
  • As a result, staff pay is declining. Salaries fell among communications, legislative, and administrative staff following the 110th Congress (2007-2008);
  • Congressional staffers in important roles are largely inexperienced. Most staff who manage policy portfolios in Congress have only one or two years of Hill experience. In other words, roughly one-third of legislative staffers have not yet served the duration of a single Congress.
  • Capitol Hill is staffed primarily by Millennials. Roughly 60% of the congressional staffer population is under the age of 35, and 75% under 40 years old
  • Turnover among congressional staff is exceedingly high. The average tenure for staff on Capitol Hill is 3.1 years. About 65% of staffers plan to leave Congress within five years, and a stunning 43% plan to depart by the end of the Congress in which they are employed;
  • Staffers work extremely long hours, and are spread thin. More than 65% of staff work 50+ hours a week, and 20% of staff work 60+ hours. Of senior staffers, 65% work 60+ hours a week. The average legislative staffer works on two to six issue areas every single day.

Staff Mostly White, Mostly Male

According to the authors, there were about 6,500 political-appointee staffers working on Capitol Hill at the time of their study, with the demographic profile for a typical staffer (73%) being a white male with a bachelor’s degree who works as a legislative assistant in a House member’s personal office.

The report notes that while there has been a significant and longstanding under-representation of Black, Indigenous and other people of color among Hill staff, things have actually gotten slightly better recently, with people of color making up 14% of top Hill staff in 2019, and 11% of top Senate staff in 2020.

Overall, the authors said, 73% of those employed in Democratic offices were White, while Republican staffers were almost exclusively White, at 94%.

The authors also found gender plays a significant role in assigning responsibilities.

Though female staffers served in legislative functions at similar rates in 2017 and 2019, they were substantially more likely to serve in communications and less likely to serve in the political leadership functions, which are often the most highly compensated and powerful within an office, they said.

Little Pay, Expensive Town

In regards to compensation, the report found the average staffer, worked more than 50 hours per week and earns less than $40,000 per year.

To put this number in perspective, the National Association of Realtors reports the median sales price of a single-family home in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is currently $472,100, up 3.4% despite the coronavirus pandemic.

While those prices likely push a home, the kind of purchase that implies setting down roots, out of reach for most staffers, rent prices aren’t much better.

The recent data from Apartment List, covering the second quarter of 2020, found the average rent in the D.C. metro for a one bedroom apartment was $1,337, while the average recent rent for a two bedroom apartment was $1,545.

On top of all this, to put it gently, being a staffer is a killer.

It is common for Washington offices to remain open during normal business hours fitting the district, and members typically expect staff to be present while in session or at after-hour events., the authors write.

“Congress today, if they meet at all, typically do so Tuesday through Thursday. When Congress finds itself negotiating “must-pass” bills, the chambers can only act after party leaders reach 11th-hour agreements,” they continue. “As late evening and even weekend votes have become more common given shorter and fewer legislative work weeks—one impact of the Contract with America-inspired shift for members to ‘go home’ as much as possible—it has become increasingly common for staff to be expected to work extended hours. These kinds of tasks are not common outside the congressional workplace, and are considered to be part of the job.

“This extra time is not separately compensated. Coupled with relatively low annual salaries, this atmosphere contributes to the common view that staff are under-appreciated and that they need to leave the institution,” the authors write.

Furthermore, Congress is generally exempt from the labor laws it enacts, and is bound only by its own rules, constitutionally. Each chamber has adopted some workplace protections such as those for sexual harassment, but the rules typically permit members to hire and fire staff as they please.

All this leads to Furnas and LaPira’s conclusion that Congress — with its declining pay, demanding expectations, and short job tenure—is subsidizing the lobbying industry.

“Members of Congress pay little attention to these trends so long as their immediate staffing needs are met, and staff use their brief experience on the Hill as a résumé boost. The taxpayers foot the bill, and special interests come out on top.”

For the authors’ solutions to these problems, click here.

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