Making Congress a better place to work

The U.S. flag flies in front of the Capitol Dome at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 12, 2017.   REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC12EA411BD0
Editor's note:

This brief is part of the Brookings Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity project.

The policy problems that the United States faces are extensive, and ultimately solving them may require broad change to our electoral governing institutions. But regardless of whether we are entering a period of reform or manage to muddle through the next few years, a well-resourced, high-capacity Congress where employees from diverse backgrounds and experiences can build long careers and expertise is a necessary condition for successful legislating in the years ahead.

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On Jan. 6, 2021, many watched in horror as a large mob of insurrectionists attacked the United States Capitol. Their attempts to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College vote and to harm members of Congress stem from a broader movement to preserve a system of white supremacy that threatens our democracy.

In the aftermath of this attack, Congress is faced with hard questions. While 2020 saw a few legislative highs—notably, the swift passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act in March—the scale of the policy problems that caused the current crisis and have been caused by it—including economic inequality, structural racism, insufficient access to health care, and more—are staggering. An effective, functional legislative branch is key to the country’s success, but the decision by roughly two-thirds of the House Republican conference to vote to exclude Arizona and/or Pennsylvania’s electoral votes even after the violent attack on the Capitol has exacerbated tensions between Democrats and Republicans. In the words of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), “This is a real tension. … I don’t know if that’s repairable. It is certainly a massive chasm that exists right now between a large majority of the Republican caucus and all of us Democrats across the ideological spectrum.”

The staff who support members of Congress, moreover, face an additional set of challenges. Employees face real and significant threats to their safety. For people of color who work on Capitol Hill, the fear is especially acute; as one staffer told The New York Times, “They came into our house with the worst of intentions. … You add, on top of that, this open bigotry in what are supposed to be hallowed halls? I don’t know if I can feel safe, just knowing that this is possible.” Concerns about the response to the insurrection by the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) and other security personnel are also widespread. As the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association wrote in a letter to congressional leadership, “Given that too many of our members have also witnessed and experienced the inequities in how select USCP officers police individuals of color, we are concerned that racial bias contributed to the security lapse on January 6th and continues to endanger the lives of all people of color throughout the Capitol complex.”

“Employees face real and significant threats to their safety. For people of color who work on Capitol Hill, the fear is especially acute.”

These post-Jan. 6 challenges rest on a system in which decision-making about policy is largely (though, importantly, not exclusively) centralized in the hands of party leaders. In an era of close partisan competition for control of institutions, there are incentives for the parties to draw clear distinctions between themselves through the legislative process. Given this—and aided by changes in party and chamber rules as well as increased resources at their disposal—party leaders control the decisions about what comes to the floor, when, and under what terms of debate.

Importantly, while this centralization is often cited as the cause of congressional challenges like gridlock, partisanship, and poor-quality lawmaking, the case may be overstated. In addition, any plans to reallocate power will have winners and losers—sometimes unexpected ones. Take, for example, the recurring debate among the House Democratic caucus over whether the party should emulate their Republican colleagues and adopt term limits for committee leaders. Doing so would help create more opportunities for influence among legislators early in their careers, but would also undercut the power of long-serving Black members who have moved up the ranks over time just as they assume influential posts.

In addition, the focus on centralization in the legislative process often overshadows the degree to which decision-making about the day-to-day administrative operations in Congress is much more decentralized—especially as the institution struggles to respond to the Jan. 6 attacks. There are certain key decisions—including, importantly, the amount of funding made available to individual congressional offices—that are ratified collectively by votes of the full House and Senate. But individual legislators are left with substantial latitude over how to structure their offices, including over how many staffers to hire, how much to pay them, and what workplace policies to implement.

Given this distribution of power—centralized policymaking power and decentralized administrative power—the challenges to investing in and building up congressional capacity are several. First, investing in Congress is believed by members to be unpopular politically. Take, for example, the 2019 debate in the House over whether to increase members’ pay for the first time in a decade—a period over which inflation eroded the value of their salaries by roughly 15%. The freeze in member pay has consequences for congressional capacity not only because it may affect the kind of individuals who run for Congress, but because, by long-standing practice, congressional staff salaries do not exceed those of the members they work for. As a result, capping member pay can make it harder to retain the long-serving, talented staff who support the hard work of legislating and overseeing the executive branch. Before the measure that would effectuate the pay raise came to the floor, however, Democratic leaders changed course, in part because several newly elected representatives from their party argued that “it’s the wrong move for Congress to talk about the cost-of-living adjustment when there are all these glaring problems that have yet to be fixed.”

The centralization of policymaking power has also coincided with a change in the kind of staff that members tend to hire. As data from Vital Statistics on Congress has documented, the share of congressional staff based in Washington, D.C., has fallen as the proportion of employees based outside the Beltway has grown. Staff based in the states and districts perform extremely important constituent service functions in congressional offices, and there are likely other reasons beyond centralization of legislative power that have also contributed to this trend. But in the context of congressional capacity, shifting resources out of Washington reduces the amount of policy expertise available to members as they pursue their legislative responsibilities.

“[E]ven in a world where the American political system has been structurally changed, the day-to-day, in-the-weeds work of legislating and conducting oversight will still require capable, expert staff from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.”

To be clear, improving the way Congress functions on a day-to-day basis by strengthening its internal capacity will not ameliorate the broader policy challenges the country faces—or eliminate the potential need for big, structural reforms to the American political system. Proposals for significant change are numerous: eliminating the Electoral College, modestly expanding the size of the House of Representatives, adopting ranked-choice voting and/or multi-member legislative districts, and eliminating the legislative filibuster in the Senate, to name a few. Improving Congress’s capacity to do its work will not address the need for new legislation to protect voting rights and combat the voter suppression that limits the full participation of all Americans in the electoral process. Nor will it automatically change the political incentives that have led some Republican members to lie about, for example, the existence of widespread voter fraud.

The merits and drawbacks of these specific proposals are discussed at length elsewhere. But even in a world where the American political system has been structurally changed, the day-to-day, in-the-weeds work of legislating and conducting oversight will still require capable, expert staff from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. And in a world where Congress muddles forward within our current arrangement of electoral and legislative institutions, skilled, diverse, and well-resourced staff members are key to ensuring legislators accomplish as much as they possibly can. In short, improving Congress’s internal capacity is a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition for equipping the legislature to address the policy problems facing the nation.

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Limits of historic and existing policies

Where to begin (but not end): Congress as a workplace

Congress is many things, but for the 541 elected members and the tens of thousands of staffers who support their work—in their personal offices both in Washington and in their states and districts; on congressional committees; in support agencies like the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office; and in many other divisions that keep the Capitol complex running, like security operations, IT, and food service—it is also a workplace. To be sure, the tasks that these individuals carry out, from oversight to legislating, affect millions of Americans. Not only are the stakes higher, but members are democratically accountable to their constituents specifically and to the American people more generally; we should not want the government to be run like a business. But if Congress is to rise to the challenge of serving the public interest, it needs to be a good place to do that hard work.

Questions about how to ensure that Congress is adequately and capably staffed are not new. Since 1945, Congress has periodically undertaken efforts to reform itself with an eye toward enhancing its capacity. Writing in advance of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, political scientists wrote that “the business of Congress has become huge, complicated, and technical.” When the House considered the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, the accompanying report characterized staff quality as “high” but “their numbers are insufficient to meet the increasing workload of the committees they serve.” And in 1993, a report from the Congressional Research Service written to inform the work of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress argued that it is “less certain … whether Congress can readily access in the information it needs, when it needs it, and in the form that will expedite and abet meeting its policy making and oversight responsibilities.”

In recent years, efforts in this area have escalated. Scholars of Congress have dug into the question of congressional capacity in earnest, and in 2019, the House of Representatives stood up the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (HSCMC) to make recommendations on reforms to the House. It has released nearly 100 recommendations; in March 2020, the House passed a resolution advancing a number of them, including several related to streamlining human resources and modernizing technology. As congressional reform efforts move forward, here are four specific areas—within the committee’s purview and beyond—on which efforts should focus.

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Policy recommendations

Protecting employee health and safety

First and foremost, the attack on the Capitol complex during the counting of the electoral votes highlights the need to prioritize the physical and mental health of all who work in the Capitol complex; as one staffer explained it to Roll Call, “The support we are lacking isn’t mental health support – it’s about any assurances whatsoever that it will be safe to return to the workplace.” Because Congress is an unusually political workplace, moreover, the instinctual response by some to the Jan. 6 insurrection has been to ignore basic questions of health and safety. As former staffer Nicole Tisdale put it to The New York Times, “I know how law enforcement responds after a terror attack and after a mass shooting, and I know how the public responds. … That’s not what has happened here. Because all of these people work on the Hill, people are fighting about the politics.” Staff members of color are especially concerned for their safety. As Herlene Mathieu, the president of Congressional Black Associates, a staff organization, described it to Roll Call, “For us, the haphazard response of law enforcement was a slap in the face, which also causes concern for our safety in our work environment moving forward.”

In addition, the decentralized nature of congressional administrative operations means that many aspects of employees’ work environment are dictated by their individual offices rather than by the institution as a whole—sometimes with significant negative consequences, including in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack. As one staffer described it, institutional support for employees has been insufficient, “which honestly is not surprising and reflective of the general lack of HR competencies on the Hill.” In addition, efforts in 2017 revealed extensive sexual harassment in congressional workplaces, and a 2019 report uncovered harassment by staff members of the custodial staff who clean their offices. In some cases, offices’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been problematic, with some legislators requiring their staff to be physically present in the office and actively discouraging mask usage. For months, congressional leaders from both parties resisted calls to expand COVID-19 testing capacity in the Capitol complex; the House did not ramp up its testing efforts until early November.

In addition to continuing efforts to increase accountability for supervisors (both members and senior staff) who commit workplace misconduct, Congress should take several specific actions to ensure that staff are capable of conducting the business of the nation in a distributed way when health and safety concerns warrant it. As the HSCMC recommended, offices need to have continuity of operations plans and telework policies and, importantly, the technology to accommodate them. In addition, both the House and Senate should continue to develop rules and procedures for remote deliberation if conditions warrant, as even dramatically scaled back in-person deliberations still require the physical presence of many administrative employees.

Ensuring that staff have access to appropriate support services is also key to protecting their health and safety. Four House members—Democrats Jason Crow (Colo.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Republicans French Hill (Ark.) and Nancy Mace (S.C.)—have called on the House’s Office of Employee Assistance to expand their services and resources, including by “having resources necessary to help non-Congressional employees who may be affected, such as food service contractors, military liaisons, press, and other contractors’ [and] having culturally competent services and resources for all employees, including those for whom English is a second language.”

Ensuring congressional staff look like the Americans they serve

Staffers of color deserve to feel safe serving their country on Capitol Hill, but the work needed to make Congress a more diverse and inclusive workplace extends far beyond that basic requirement. As work by LaShonda Brenson at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies makes clear, the demographics of congressional staff do not reflect the diversity of the Americans they serve. While people of color make up almost 40% of the U.S. population, they comprise only about 14% and 11% of the top staff positions in the House and Senate, respectively. In 2019, the House made an investment in addressing this disparity by creating the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, but as the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Reform Task Force recommended, the House should strengthen and expand the office’s roles and responsibilities and ensure that it is a permanent, nonpartisan unit; the Senate, meanwhile, currently lacks such an entity and should create one. Individual legislators’ offices, moreover, must also dedicate resources and focus to these efforts—and do so with intentionality. As a new guide from Representative Democracy states clearly, “While congressional hiring managers say that a diverse staff is a priority, many admit their office’s diversity policy is implied or assumed. Yet without specifics, there can be no shared value or vision to work toward.”

“Expanding paid internship opportunities in the House and Senate is also key to ensuring that the next generation of congressional staff come from a diverse set of backgrounds.”

Expanding paid internship opportunities in the House and Senate is also key to ensuring that the next generation of congressional staff come from a diverse set of backgrounds. As a report from the organization Pay Our Interns notes, internships are often an important gateway into full-time employment on Capitol Hill, but white students are over-represented among congressional interns when compared to their share of the national undergraduate student population. Providing additional funding to allow congressional member and committee offices to offer paid internships can help create pathways for young people from groups who have previously been denied opportunities like working on Capitol Hill to pursue careers in Congress.

The HSCMC also drew attention to a particular area of needed focus for Congress: inclusion for employees with disabilities. Among the committee’s recommendations was to require a review of the Capitol complex to determine accessibility challenges for individuals with disabilities. Beyond physical accessibility constraints, ensuring programmatic access and inclusion for employees should also be a focus for congressional offices.

Empowering offices to recruit and retain top talent

Increasing the amount of funding available to congressional offices—especially House members’ personal offices—could allow members to expand their staffs to better serve their constituents and to engage in legislative activity more effectively. While a statutory cap on the number of permanent staffers a House member may employ in his or her personal office exists (and should, as HSCMC recommended, be eliminated), the size of office budgets tends to be the binding constraint on legislators’ ability to carry larger staffs. As Alexander Furnas and Timothy LaPira recently documented, for example, the House did not increase spending on personal offices’ budgets between 2013 and 2017, but inflation decreased the value of those dollars by roughly 10% over the same time frame. In addition, as Furnas and LaPira describe, because the House gives members an overall allocation for their offices, there can be an incentive to use less on pay for staff if other expenses rise. The Senate, by contrast, provides individual senators with separate funds for staff and office expenses, and it has had more consistent spending on staff over time. While there are other important institutional differences that help explain differences in staff capacity between the two chambers, the House should also consider changes to the internal mechanics of its approach to office budgets.

In addition, there are both statutory limits on the maximum amount that staff members in both the House and Senate can be paid. These can make it difficult for members and especially committees to retain expert staff, particularly in fields that require substantial technical expertise—like cybersecurity and other technical fields—and should be reformed. There is no consistent pay schedule that extends across offices to provide staffers with clarity around what they should expect to be paid at various levels. As the HSCMC has recommended, Congress should establish a voluntary pay band system—perhaps modeled off the existing one for federal civil servants—that would establish salary floors and average pay for each position in individual member offices.

“[T]he House did not increase spending on personal offices’ budgets between 2013 and 2017, but inflation decreased the value of those dollars by roughly 10% over the same time frame.”

Beyond pay, recruiting and retaining talented staff also requires competitive benefits. Since 2014, members and certain congressional staff have been required to use Washington, D.C.’s small-business marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act to obtain insurance, rather than having their health benefits provided via the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program that insures other federal employees. As the HSCMC’s final report noted, “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.” The HSCMC recommended that Congress eliminate this setup, allowing both D.C.- and district-based staff to either enroll in standard federal health plans or to use their relevant local marketplace to purchase coverage.

Student loan repayment programs for staff are another area ripe for improvement. Currently, there are limits on both the monthly amount for which staffers are eligible and on the total amount for which an individual is eligible; the House recently proposed increasing the maximum for which an individual is eligible. There is a maximum amount available to each employing office, however, and a wide range of approaches in how offices choose to allocate the funds. A 2017 survey from the Congressional Management Foundation found that, while the most common approach for House and Senate offices was to give a fixed or equal amount to all participating employees, roughly a quarter of House offices responding to the survey had no set policy and between approximately 15%-20% of offices in both chambers based their payments on the employee’s current loan payment. This variation across offices, along with the fact that offices are not required to participate, creates uncertainty for current and potential staff that may influence their decision to seek or stay in positions in the congressional workforce.

Progress that Congress has already made in this area also deserves recognition. Proposed regulations that would allow House and Senate staff to take up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave within a year of the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child were recently published. Once finalized, the House and Senate should pass the required resolutions to implement them.

Streamlining some administrative operations

Congress’s need to streamline some of its administrative operations extends beyond necessary changes to work successfully in the current public health environment or in future extreme situations. More generally, both the House and Senate would benefit from more centralization in several areas. The HSCMC, for example, has already recommended that the House create a “one-stop shop Human Resources Hub,” and the Senate would benefit from creating a similar entity. Congress’s struggles to adapt to new technologies have also been significant, including what several experts have described as an “internal pacing problem,” or the “near-complete incapacity to make effective use of technology for … internal operations and the day-to-day work of the institution.” Unlike other institutions of a similar size, they note, in Congress, “No central information technology (IT) office is responsible for purchasing site licenses, building infrastructure, mandating security protocols, recommending best practices, and in general deploying technology.” The possible solutions to this are as wide-ranging as the problem, but among the most important is building centralized capacity within each chamber and between the House and Senate to share information and coordinate efforts.

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To be clear, work on these areas—many of which were highlighted by the House’s Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress during the 116th Congress—is not a solution to all that ails Congress, either in the necessary responses to the Jan. 6 attack or more generally. Deeper reforms to the institution’s operations may be required. Nor will making Congress a better place to work magically make the institution able to address all the significant policy problems facing the country. Doing that requires changing the incentives that members face when they run for election and work with one another in Washington. Shifting those incentives may, in turn, necessitate structural reform—possibly both inside and outside of Congress. But even, for example, a moderately larger House of Representatives would need a talented, diverse staff operating in a modern institution to do the hard work of solving the policy challenges facing America in 2021 and beyond.

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