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FixGov

From staff cuts to lagging technology, Congress has a capacity problem

Casey Burgat

Congress has convened for one of the busier sessions it has faced in decades. But can it do its job?

A recently published report from the Congressional Management Foundation provides yet more support for the growing and alarming consensus that Congress lacks the resources to perform its duties successfully. In the words of author Kathy Goldschmidt: “Congress may not be working well because it does not currently have the capacity to work well.”

More striking still is that these findings come not from academics or think-tankers, but from those who actually do the work. The survey was culled from the responses of 184 senior congressional senior staffers, including chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, legislative directors, communications directors, House district directors and Senate state directors. Senior aides—veterans of both D.C. and district offices—are most familiar with the demands and deficiencies of Congress, and are in a unique position to provide experience-backed answers as to why the national legislature increasingly fails to execute its role in our democracy.

Using a scale that measures respondents’ opinions ranging from “very unimportant/dissatisfied” to “very important/satisfied” on 11 aspects of their job, the survey offers numerical illustrations of the impact of a number of disheartening trends: that Congress has hamstrung its legislative capabilities by cutting staff, despite facing more informational and policy demands than ever; that it faces huge staffing turnover and compensation problems, which inevitably lead to increased lobbyist influence and executive branch legislating; and that the first branch hasn’t invested nearly enough in the technology required to be a responsive political body in the 21st century.

As others have written, the results highlight senior aides’ distressingly low levels of satisfaction with nearly all aspects surveyed. Buried beneath these headline stats, however, the report offers nuggets of important information that merit attention from advocates of greater congressional capacity. By combining relatively positive responses (very and somewhat important, very and somewhat satisfied), and weighing those against the sums of relatively negative responses (very and somewhat unimportant, very and somewhat dissatisfied), one can get a better staffers’ perceptions of problems within the body. This is important because, when they are asked to give opinions on congressional questions that have obvious normatively “correct” answers, staffers are likely to assign very high importance scores. Where this is the case, relative intensity becomes a key factor in determining what is most important from the perspective of the respondents.

For example, when senior aides were asked how important staffer skill levels and technological infrastructure are to Congress’ ability to function, both received scores of “very important” (83 percent and 67 percent, respectively). But because the responses aren’t ranked, readers can’t make direct comparisons to determine which is more important.

Aggregating the positive and negative scores, though, can help readers decipher which aspects of their jobs senior staffers are generally positive or negative about. In doing so, we sacrifice some of the granular detail about the intensity of their preferences, but are better able to judge which issues are bigger problems in the eyes of senior staffers. And in a world of limited resources and very real opportunity costs, this discussion is vital.

Very Important/
Satisfied
Somewhat Important/
Satisfied
Neutral Somewhat Unimportant/
Dissatisfied
Very Unimportant/
Dissatisfied
Don’t Know/No Opinion
Staff knowledge, skills and abilities are adequate to support Members’ official duties Importance 83% 14% 2% 1% 0% 1%
Satisfaction 15% 40% 11% 28% 5% 2%
Members have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate policy and legislation Importance 67% 28% 3% 1% 1% 1%
Satisfaction 6% 18% 10% 39% 23% 4%
Source: Congressional Management Foundation


Just 15 percent of respondents answered they were “completely satisfied” that levels of knowledge, skills and abilities among staff are adequate to support members’ official duties. While alarming, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Another 40 percent said they were “somewhat satisfied,” bringing the combined positive response to 55 percent. On the negative side of the ledger, 28 percent answered they were “somewhat dissatisfied” and 5 percent were “very dissatisfied,” for a combined negative response of 33 percent. Thus, the prompt received a net positive score of 22 percentage points: 22 percent more respondents were at least somewhat satisfied that levels of staff knowledge, skills and abilities were adequate than those who were at least somewhat dissatisfied. In short, the level of satisfaction far outweighed the dissatisfaction.

Contrast this with the prompt: “Members have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate policy and legislation.” Only 6 percent of aides said they were “very satisfied” this was true, while another 18 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” On the flip side, 39 percent were “somewhat dissatisfied” and 23 percent were “very dissatisfied.” Taken together, the prompt received a net negative score of 38 percent, meaning vastly more senior aides are dissatisfied with the amount of time members have to devote to legislating.

Though the prompts highlight generally dim views of both staff knowledge and the amount of time and resources members have to legislate, the overwhelmingly negative score for the time constraints prompt suggests it poses more of a problem, in the eyes of senior staffers.

Very Important/
Satisfied
Somewhat Important/
Satisfied
Neutral Somewhat Unimportant/
Dissatisfied
Very Unimportant/
Dissatisfied
Don’t Know/No Opinion
Members and staff have access to high-quality, nonpartisan, policy expertise within the legislative branch Importance 81% 13% 4% 1% 0% 2%
Satisfaction 24% 44% 11% 14% 5% 2%
The technological infrastructure is adequate to support Members’ official duties Importance 60% 28% 7% 2% 2% 2%
Satisfaction 6% 23% 16% 32% 20% 3%
Source: Congressional Management Foundation


In another example, just 24 percent of surveyed aides said they were “very satisfied” with the level of access that members and staff have to high-quality, nonpartisan information. This is astonishingly low, and echoes common complaints about cuts not just to congressional staff levels generally, but to the Congressional Research Service and Congressional Budget Office more specifically. Yet the prompt’s net positive score of 49 percent suggests senior aides don’t view the problems in accessing information to be all that threatening. In contrast, satisfaction with Congress’ technological capabilities received a net negative score of 23 percent. While more than 80 percent of respondents deemed both topics at least “somewhat important,” that score shows generally more dissatisfaction with congressional technology infrastructure than with access to nonpartisan information.

Again, it is crucial to underscore that the report’s survey results are disconcertingly low across the board. Senior congressional staffers are largely dissatisfied with many crucial aspects of their job and don’t have much confidence in the body’s ability to perform its required duties. Such a reality is unacceptable. We should look closely at these data. Not only do these staffers know how the Hill works better than anyone else, but they have a vested interest in making Congress work better.

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