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Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

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Posted on 17 September 2020 Written by Econintersect Guest -- this post authored by Alexander C. Furnas and Timothy M. LaPira, NewAmerica.orgCongressional staff compensation has generally declined in recent decades, but these patterns are not uniform across all positions and employing offices. The cause of the decline is complicated. During this time period, information technology innovations have made constituent and media communication cheaper, but also more demanding.2 Please share this article - Go to very top of page, right hand side, for social media buttons.The declining cost of constituent communication and the rapid pace of public relations, in both traditional media and the break-neck rise of social media, have made members of Congress shift their attention away from

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posted on 17 September 2020

Written by Econintersect Guest

-- this post authored by Alexander C. Furnas and Timothy M. LaPira, NewAmerica.org

Congressional staff compensation has generally declined in recent decades, but these patterns are not uniform across all positions and employing offices. The cause of the decline is complicated. During this time period, information technology innovations have made constituent and media communication cheaper, but also more demanding.2

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain


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The declining cost of constituent communication and the rapid pace of public relations, in both traditional media and the break-neck rise of social media, have made members of Congress shift their attention away from legislating, toward communication and constituent service.3 The former is typically oriented toward developing policy and overseeing the Executive, and the latter toward ensuring reelection.

But technological innovation alone is only part of the story. Much larger, structural shifts in American politics have changed what Congress is today. The rise of ideological polarization and the increased competitiveness for majority control of both chambers have consequences. Congress went from being an institution that painstakingly solved problems to one where members tweet about how their ideological faction would solve problems - without actually following through.

The result is congressional brain drain.4 Not only are resources increasingly scarce in the legislative branch generally, the typical member’s policy shop has shrunk by about a third since the 103rd Congress.

Official Allowances and Personnel Compensation Analysis

The House and Senate appropriate funds for official expenses based on the members’ representational allowance (MRA) and Senators’ official personnel and office expense account (SOPOEA). The MRA and SOPOEA have developed differently over time, creating divergent paths for structuring how members allocate their resources. We show here the SOPOEA is a far superior planning and budget tool.

In addition to the budget constraints imposed on members’ personal offices by the MRA, the Rules of the House of Representatives dictate that each office is limited to the so-called “18+4" full-time equivalent (FTE) rule. In response to a scandal in the 1970s where no-show employees were discovered on payroll, the House permits members to have 18 FTEs, plus up to four part-time equivalents. If we assume all offices could employ a total of 22 people, then we can measure the completeness of Representatives’ personal office rosters. Figure 1 shows a rise in staffing from the 1970s to the early 1990s, when FTEs began declining steadily through the 115th Congress (2017-2018). More importantly, the number of House personal office staff located in Washington declined from a peak of more than 70 percent to just about 50 percent. This trend is consistent with the rise of the permanent campaign and the post-Reagan era of heightened partisan competition.5

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

Source: Brookings Vital Statistics on Congress, tables 3.2 and 5.3 (https://www.brookings. edu/multi-chapter-report/vital-statistics-on-congress/)

In the midst of these broader trends, Congress adopted the MRA in 1995 and implemented it in 1996. Beginning in the 1970s, the House frequently established new accounts that members could draw from, creating a maze of duplicative pots of money. Sometimes members would use funds from one account to pay credits in others, which often made it impossible to follow the money. These “new" MRA accounts were not actually new at all. They simply codified the many existing accounts into three primary functions, or “allowances." The three allowances include the “clerk hire" (staff) component intended for the hiring of all personal office staff (in both Washington and back in the district), the office expense component intended for operating expenses, and the variable component intended for member travel, district office rent, and other items.6 Importantly, the clerk hire and office expense components are constant for all 440 members of the House; the variable component formula is based on the geographic location of the district to account for variation in costs like commercial real-estate prices. The point was to create parity among offices. The MRA was supposed to account for the fact that some members can take the subway to work while others have a three-legged flight to a rural district, or that some members pay district office rent and wages in the most expensive cities in the country.

The three components are separate for purposes of calculating the overall MRA budget. However, members can use their overall MRA budget for any allowable expense as they please.7 They can hire as many or as few staff as they want, and they can pay them whatever they choose, regardless of the clerk-hire allowance amount. They can open as few or as many district offices, buy as many printers, or send as many constituent newsletters as they want, so long as they do not overspend their total MRA budget in a given fiscal year.

From 1996 to 2012, legislative branch appropriations reports listed these three allowances per congressional office separately. Beginning in 2013, appropriators simply stopped reporting the allowances. Since then, no further adjustments were made to the base amounts, while the variable component formula remains unchanged. In other words, the House simply has ignored its personal office budget for eight years running.

Thus, the MRA remains stagnant, despite a total inflation rate increase of 9.8 percent from 2013 to 2017. In effect, by simply appropriating a constant total MRA amount as is, 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.

Figure 2 plots average amounts for all three components, along with mean personnel spending across all 440 House member personal offices.8 Since it was launched, the average MRA has grown in nominal dollars, until recently. In constant dollars, the MRA peaked in 2010, declined through 2016, and has modestly increased in recent years. It has never returned to pre-2010 levels.

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

From 2001 to 2009, personnel spending was consistently higher than the clerk hire component, suggesting that members were dipping into the other components to staff their offices. In other words, members were forced to use slack in non-personnel allowances to pay staff. Eventually, that slack ran out.

It is important to note the context of these personnel expenditure trends. In response to the Great Recession in 2008, members chose to freeze their own pay in the 110th Congress. They have not adopted cost-of-living pay increases since 2009, despite the strong pre-COVID-19 recovery that started in 2010. Rules in the House and Senate prevent staff from earning more than the current member salary fixed rate of $174,000.9 Coupled with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) rules changes requiring Washington, D.C.-based staff to buy into the District of Columbia exchange, members dramatically reduced personnel expenditures from 2009 forward. Anecdotal evidence suggests that senior staff with relatively long tenures chose to leave to avoid costly health care contributions and salary ceilings created by members’ self-imposed pay freeze. In turn they were likely replaced by relatively younger and less experienced staff. If the congressional response to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 follows a similar trajectory, we should expect further debilitating declines in congressional capacity in coming years. Staffers are long overdue for cost-of-living pay increases, which may be further forestalled by the current economic crisis.

These declining personnel expenditures may be particularly challenging for Capitol Hill staff. The Bureau of Economic Research now ranks the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.Va. metropolitan area as the 10th most expensive in the country, and the second most on the East Coast.10 So, even adjusting for inflation using the nation-wide Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), these trends may be underestimating the loss of purchasing power for Capitol Hill staff.

The consequence of the pay freeze and the ACA rule is that after 2009, inflation-adjusted personnel expenditures were at or below the budgeted clerk hire amount. With no slack remaining after paying for relatively fixed non-personnel overhead, members have been left with little choice but to cut staffing. This is the new normal. Almost 70 percent of the 116th Congress (2019-2020) first took office since 2009. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of members have never been budgeted an allowance with sufficient slack to cover both overhead costs and personnel. Most members do not know any different than being offered a summary office allowance that no longer accounts for changes in purchasing power or variation in district-specific costs. Simply, what was the MRA has devolved into a poor planning and budgeting tool, and most members are oblivious to the fact.

The same is not true in the Senate. The SOPOEA is based on three distinct accounts: the administrative and clerical assistance allowance, the legislative assistance allowance, and the official office expense. The office expense formula varies on state size and other factors, and Senators are free to use their official funds as they please. The first two accounts combined represent the budget allocations for Senators' personal office staff.11

Unlike the MRA, Senate Legislative Branch appropriators actually continue to budget these component expenditures. Figure 3 shows that personnel spending has remained much more stable over time, despite inflation-adjusted fluctuation in Senators’ administrative assistance accounts. Additionally, it is common for Senators to hold a chair or ranking member position at a committee or subcommittee, or to be afforded committee funding for designated staffing needs. Senators, then, meet their personnel needs using a combination of ample personal office and committee funds. Unlike the general prohibition against designating committee staff to specific members in the House, it is commonplace for committee staff to be de facto employed exclusively by individual Senators.12 With the combination of better budget planning by Senate appropriators and greater discretion in the use of committee funds, Senators are much better positioned to consistently recruit and retain staff than Representatives.

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

If the SOPOEA administrative and clerical and the legislative assistance components are taken together as the total amount budgeted for all personnel, then Senators’ staffing budgets far exceed their staffing expenditures. In other words, Senators purposely allocate sufficient slack for staff, so they have little need to dip into the office expense allowance. Of course, Senators and Representatives have very different constitutionally defined constituencies, with most Senators representing far more constituents than House members. For comparison, we calculate the percentage of the personnel portion of the MRA or SOPOEA used for actual personnel spending. For the entire 2001 to 2016 time period, Senators spent over time an average of 89 percent of their personnel budget for staff, whereas House members spent 104 percent of their clerk hire allocation on personnel.13 Consequently, as we explore in our human capital analysis below,14 Senators have greater flexibility to recruit and compensate more experienced staff, which we know improves their legislative effectiveness.15

House of Representatives Job Title Analysis

These aggregate trends do not themselves reveal how members allocate their shrinking personnel budgets and smaller Washington office rosters. In this section, we disaggregate House members’ personnel expenditures by common job titles.16 We group job titles by their primary area of responsibility, though doing so is not precise because the titles themselves do not match actual assigned duties very well, as we demonstrate in the next section.

Once again, these data need to be understood in the context of the 2009 member pay freeze and ACA rule for staff. Despite these changes, Figure 4 shows that the median salary for chief of staff (CoS) has remained relatively constant between the 103rd (1993-1994) and 115th Congresses.

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

The CoS typically supervises all staff and all work within an office - and is tasked with managing the MRA - so is not surprisingly the highest ranking staffer would be paid more than others. Also, the CoS typically controls the budget and sets salary rates in consultation with the member, including his or her own. It is not uncommon for members to delegate most or all of those decisions to senior staff, sometimes with regrettable consequences.

Contrast that stability with communications and legislative staff, both of which are typically considered the primary areas of responsibility in a Washington office. In the “Communications Staff" facet in Figure 4, we see not only a decline in both common job titles post-110th Congress, but a growing gap between communications directors and press secretaries. Both positions peaked in the 110th Congress, but the inflation-adjusted median press secretary salary dropped more than 50 percent through the 115th Congress. Communications directors’ salaries have likewise declined, but only at a fraction of their more junior colleagues.

Alternatively, staff in members’ so-called “policy shop" exhibit a relatively stable secular trend through the 110th Congress, then a post-110th drop across all levels. The third panel in Figure 4 shows the most common Capitol Hill position - legislative assistant - decline significantly in the 111th Congress (2009-2010), never to recover. The median legislative assistant earned just over $35,000 in the 115th Congress. The typical legislative correspondent earned less than $30,000. The mid-level supervisory position of legislative director shows the most volatility, peaking at more than $80,000 in the 110th, and dropping by nearly a quarter by the 115th Congress.

Job titles associated with constituent service operations in the district follow a similar pattern to legislative operations in Washington. The most notable decline is the supervisory district director, which dropped considerably after the 110th Congress. The requirement that staff use state-based ACA exchanges may have particularly affected district directors, since rates in some exchanges may far exceed those in the federal employee health benefits program

Finally, administrative and clerical staff experienced the largest and longest running declines in salary across all levels. These positions are the most likely to be impacted by improved communication technology and office operation efficiencies. Executive assistants, typically a position that is both politically and personally sensitive to members, has plummeted from a pre-110th Congress (2007-2008) pay rate equivalent to communications directors down to one roughly equal to the much more common legislative assistant.

Positions like office manager and staff assistant - commonly considered foot-in-the-door jobs that position staff for promotion to jobs in legislative operations or communications - have likewise declined. Staff assistants’ annualized salaries dropped down to below $20,000 in the 115th Congress - in a city where the living wage for an adult with no children is $35,194.17 Though turnover in these positions are high, these extremely low salaries suggest that staffing is a sellers’ market, especially at the entry level. It is not uncommon for hundreds of applicants to seek out these entry-level positions, nor is it rare that staff assistants have additional jobs on nights and weekends or require assistance from family, despite Congress being the most professionalized legislature in the world. These jobs, then, are extremely difficult for underrepresented and lower income populations to seek and obtain, contributing to a long-term, persisting lack of diversity within congressional staff.

House of Representatives Human Resource Allocation Analysis

Comparing compensation by common job title is misleading because conventions have changed significantly over time and across chambers. For instance, the job title “chief of staff" has all but replaced the title “administrative assistant," which was very commonly used for the most senior staffer until the late 1990s. And, as personnel budgets have tightened, it has become standard practice on Capitol Hill to offer staff a change in job title without significantly increasing pay, with the implicit understanding that a more prestigious title may improve career advancement in the future. The result is de facto job title inflation. So, while intuitive for those familiar with Capitol Hill jargon, job titles are an ineffective way to measure how members prioritize the functions in their office.18

To better measure how members allocate resources to their specific needs, we systematically identify job responsibilities for each staffer by cross-checking their payroll records with quarterly Congressional Yellow Book volumes that coincide with their work.

Often there is a perfect correlation between job title and duties, as with legislative assistants. But that is not always the case, since some chiefs of staff maintain a policy portfolio and some staff hold joint job titles such as press secretary/legislative assistant. We identify ambiguous cases like these, and split the staffers’ reported salary between the relevant functions. Doing so more realistically reflects the allocation of resources in an office. The result is a superior measure of how members allocate MRA to specific duties, rather than to job titles.

In Figure 5, expenditures are tracked in five categories: (1) political leadership, (2) legislative, (3) communications, (4) constituent service, and (5) administrative functions. Political leadership staff is typically senior positions that have multiple supervisory and operational responsibilities, such as CoS, committee staff director, or a deputy. In some cases, positions such as “scheduler" play a gatekeeping role, so may be wholly or partially categorized as political leadership; in others, the same position is relatively junior, so may be categorized as administrative. Our investigation painstakingly categorized every staffer, in every quarter, to more precisely account for what their responsibilities are rather than relying solely on job titles, which can be uninformative.19

The y-axis is the percentage of expenditures on staffing across all five functions.20 When measured by function, there is no sudden decline after the 110th Congress that we observe in pay per job title, suggesting that members were sensitive to changing budget constraints that came with member salary freezes. Most importantly, the decline in the allocation of personnel funding across all categories began long before the Great Recession, the member pay freeze, and the ACA rules for staff.

Long-Term Trends In Congress Brain Drain

The largest secular trends are the sharp decline in administrative staffing and the rise of constituent service personnel. The decline in administrative functions is driven by reduced information technology costs. Thus, the savings accrued by the introduction of low-cost technology were initially shifted to constituent service, which is most closely tied to members’ reelection motivation. But that increase in district operations staffing was short lived.

The most striking feature is that legislative operations and constituent service were once prioritized equally in House offices. From the 103rd through the 105th (and, most likely prior to the 103rd), members’ legislative and constituent service allocations reflect equal priorities.21 Since the 105th, members rank policy shops far below district work.

This is true even though both constituent service and legislative operations both decline at roughly similar rates after the 107th Congress (2001-2002). At its peak, the median office allocated about 27 percent of the MRA to legislative staff. By the 113th Congress (2013-2014) this share had decreased to 18 percent, a cumulative decline of roughly one-third of legislative operations staffing. This decline is equivalent to just over one FTE assigned primarily with legislative tasks, such as a legislative assistant earning about $35,000 plus fringe benefits. In the same period, median expenditures on political leadership and communications staffers remain relatively constant. And, we already know the legislative workload slack has not been picked up by committee staff. In fact, committee staffing rosters have themselves declined during the same period.22 The decline in committee staffing coincides with a dramatic reduction in committees’ legislative productivity, which has largely been replaced by highly partisan oversight theatrics.23 Alternatively, there is some evidence that party leadership staff has increased during this period to manage the legislative workload, but of course that is not the same as having rank-and-file members fully participate in the legislative agenda setting and lawmaking process.24 Finally, these trends are consistent across multiple Congresses, regardless of which party is in the majority.

All told, judging by their expenditures on staff, members of the House today value representation activities like constituent services far more than they do legislative activities such as conducting rigorous oversight, drafting legislation, and building support for their ideas. Thus, the story is that rank-and-file members are legislating less, and focusing more on district work that is geared toward reelection and representation, as opposed to policy and oversight. Combined with fewer legislative days and an increased expectation to raise election funds, especially while in Washington, Congress’s capacity to govern has diminished to its lowest levels in generations.


This article first appeared at New America 08 September 2020 and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license.


About the Authors

Timothy M. LaPira, PhD, is professor of political science at James Madison University in Virginia and faculty affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking at the University of Virginia. His expertise is on Congress, interest groups, and lobbying. He is co-author of Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests (University Press of Kansas, 2017) and co-editor of Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline of Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2020). He has written more than twenty peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and serves on the editorial boards for the academic journals Legislative Studies Quarterly and Interest Groups & Advocacy. He previously worked on Capitol Hill as the American Political Science Association Public Service Fellow at the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and as a legislative assistant to a member of Congress in the 1990s. LaPira was also a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, where he was responsible for developing the Lobbying and Revolving Door databases on OpenSecrets.org.

Timothy M. LaPira, PhD, is professor of political science at James Madison University in Virginia and faculty affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking at the University of Virginia. His expertise is on Congress, interest groups, and lobbying. He is co-author of Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests (University Press of Kansas, 2017) and co-editor of Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline of Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2020). He has written more than twenty peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and serves on the editorial boards for the academic journals Legislative Studies Quarterly and Interest Groups & Advocacy. He previously worked on Capitol Hill as the American Political Science Association Public Service Fellow at the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and as a legislative assistant to a member of Congress in the 1990s. LaPira was also a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, where he was responsible for developing the Lobbying and Revolving Door databases on OpenSecrets.org.


Footnotes/References

2 Michael A. Neblo, Kevin M. Esterling, and David M. Lazer, Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

3 Jesse Crosson, Alexander Furnas, Timothy LaPira, and Casey Burgat, “Partisan Competition and the Decline in Legislative Capacity among Congressional Offices," Legislative Studies Quarterly, published online (July 29, 2020). source

4 Timothy M. LaPira and Herschel F. Thomas, Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017).

5 Frances E. Lee, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

6 Ida A. Brudnick, Members’ Representational Allowance: History and Usage (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019).

7 Constrained only by the Rules of the House and what is permissible by the House Ethics Committee.

8 The mean for the clerk hire and office expense amounts are equal to the total since it does not vary, whereas the mean for the variable amounts is calculated across all Members.

9 Ida A. Brudnick, Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2020).

10 See Eric Figueroa: “Regional Price Parities by State and Metro Area," (Suitland, MD.: Bureau of Economic Analysis, May 18, 2020). source

11 Ida A. Brudnick, Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account (SOPOEA): History and Usage (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019).

12 House Rules occasionally permit certain committees, such as Rules and Appropriations, to designate committee funds for individual Members’ personnel needs, but it is not common or consistent over time.

13 Senate mean = 88.7 (sd = 1.07); House mean = 104.1 (sd = 1.7), t = 7.8; adjusted df = 23.9.

14 See section 4 of this report.

15 Jesse M. Crosson, Geoffrey M. Lorenz, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman, “How Experienced Legislative Staff Contribute to Effective Lawmaking," in Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform, Eds. Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman, and Kevin R. Kosar (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

16 To date, the Congress and Its Experts data set (see source we draw on here includes reliable, clean data for House Members’ personal offices only. The timeline extends further into the past then all other publicly available sources, including LegiStorm data that is censored in the year 2001. The ongoing project is extending this research to committee, party leadership, and other offices in the chamber, and to Senate offices. Data from House Statements of Disbursements for the 109th Congress (2005-2006) are unavailable.

17 Amy K. Glasmeier, Living Wage Calculator, (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020). livingwage.mit.edu.

18 Eric Petersen, Congressional Staff: Duties and Functions of Selected Positions (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2012).

19 See section 6.6 for a more detailed description of the staffer coding process.

20 All other overhead and expenses are excluded, so these figures do not sum to 100% of the MRA.

21 The sharp increase is frequently attributed to Speaker Gingrich, though the evidence suggests this is not true. Both parties simultaneously, equally, and consistently shift resources from legislative operations to constituent service, even when majority.

22 See Timothy M. LaPira and Herschel F. Thomas, Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017) and Molly E. Reynolds, "The Decline of Congressional Capacity," in Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform, Eds. Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman, and Kevin R. Kosar (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

23 Jonathon Lewallen, Committees and the Decline of Lawmaking in Congress (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2020)

24 James M. Curry, Legislating in the Dark: Information and Power in the House of Representatives (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Lee, 2016.

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