Many longtime political observers agree Congress does not have enough staff to do its work. Those it does have are paid too little, work too many hours and turn over at such fast rates that institutional memory and policy expertise inevitably are in short supply.

The primary effect of these staffing problems is increased lobbyist influence in legislative outcomes, more deference to the executive branch to craft and advance policy, and a never-ending cycle to replace departed staffers.

If only Congress invested in itself, the argument goes, by appropriating more funds to hire additional staff and paying current staff more competitive wages, many of the acute problems of congressional capacity would be addressed. Members would be better informed about policy decisions, legislative productivity would increase, the influence of special interests would wane and Congress would be in far better position to reassert itself as the first branch of government.

This is all absolutely true. Congress does need to invest a lot more in itself. After all, the top reason aides quit is a desire to earn more. But more money and more staff alone will not solve the staffing problem. Instead, folks advocating to strengthen Congress need to acknowledge another simple yet important truth: Congress is a primary contributor to its own staffing problem. Its internal dynamics create and perpetuate an environment many staffers simply don’t like working in.

The fact is that congressional offices—personal, committee and supporting agencies—don’t always make the best use of the committed, ambitious and educated young aides who show up to serve. Instead of capitalizing on and fostering talented professionals who desperately want to learn how to influence policy meaningfully, congressional offices often squander this human capital by assigning them menial tasks or, even worse, no tasks at all.

I know this from experience. I have sat in congressional offices and pleaded for more substantive work. I know others who have done the same. We were aware of internal and external calls for more staff to help Congress function, but couldn’t help but wonder what good more staff would do if we—those already hired by Congress—weren’t being deployed to make policy, conduct oversight or help constituents understand complex issues and what we intended to do about them.

Aides are trying to tell us this, too. Consider what staffers pinpoint as the main culprits for their wanting to ditch congressional work. Nearly equal with the desire to earn more money are four factors more money would do little to alleviate: frustrations with management, desire for a job that makes better use of their skills and abilities, unsatisfactory relationships with supervisors and inadequate recognition for work completed.

It’s true that appropriating more funds to Congress would ease staff frustrations with compensation and could help address the inadequate opportunities for professional advancement. Increased appropriations would allow aides to be paid more for their work and create more positions into which the best performers could be promoted.

But to resolve the kinds of internal dynamics that staffers say make them want to quit after alarmingly short tenures will require some thoughtful attention—and yes, a commitment of time, another resource in dangerously low supply—by members, senior staffers and supervisors. After all, recognition for one’s work is free. Management disputes and bad working relationships with supervisors can often be worked out with communication and purposeful listening. Matching talents and abilities to meaningful work takes thought but it doesn’t cost money.

Hiring more aides and placing them in the same environments that make current staffers want to quit will only prolong and exacerbate the personnel problem. If we pay staffers more but do nothing to address the dearth of professional development and advancement opportunities, or ignore the clear need for better management within congressional offices, Congress will still just be a steppingstone to more fulfilling, more congenial places to work.

To truly increase congressional capacity, we must be honest about what is broken internally before we assume external solutions will be the fix we need. For the internal problems that make current aides want to flee, Congress has no one to blame but itself.

Image by Jared Skarda

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