Not long out of college, abysmally paid, without much in the way of worldly knowledge or expertise, and yet charged with mastering several issues: so goes the stereotype of a congressional staffer. If members of Congress are ill-informed, their reliance on such staffers is thought to be a major reason why—not because the staffers lack intelligence or industry, but simply because they are out of their depth.
Like most stereotypes, this one has some truth to it. Green young graduates are plentiful on Capitol Hill, especially on the House of Representatives side—but trying to understanding the shortcomings of the overall chamber with reference only to them is like trying to understand the travails of American small businesses by a thorough study of the behavior of checkout cashiers. You could find plenty to fault, yet you would be in no position to take in the real nature of the problem.
Just the same: If junior Hill staffers were to be less abysmally paid, it stands to reason that members of the House could rely on somewhat more qualified people, and that would certainly be a good thing. It comes as good news, then, that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced last week that the House will institute an unprecedented pay floor for its employees. The details haven’t been published yet, but starting in September, all House employees are to be paid no less than $45,000 per year. Even if this change were to force a slight reduction of overall staff, trading off quantity for quality would probably be healthy. But Pelosi insists that with the 21 percent increase in the budget for congressional offices—the Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA), now around $1.7 million yearly—voted into effect earlier this year, offices should be able to increase the bottom of their pay scale without having to contract any staff.
This change deserves at least two enthusiastic cheers. It is heartening to see Congress investing in its own institutional capacity, and there are plenty of hard-working young staffers who are long overdue for a raise. If this change causes some of them to stick around on Capitol Hill a while longer, before they take the revolving door over to the (better-paying) executive branch or (much-better-paying) lobbying business, that will make our legislature a stronger institution.
Having said that, there are a few reasons why we might withhold a third cheer, at least until more details become known.
First, although a pay floor seems straightforward enough, the devil is in the details. House offices already make extensive use of part-time and shared employees, and it is hard to imagine that the new rules will require paying them at the same rate as their full-time colleagues. If some members’ offices are determined to keep paying lower amounts, then, the practical effect of this rule might be to change more of their employees over to part-time arrangements, which would presumably have some effect on those employees’ quality of life. Because the House has traditionally given members almost complete authority to structure their staffers’ employment as they see fit, it remains to be seen whether the House Committee on Administration will be any position to police the conduct of offices that make extensive use of part-time, or “part-time,” workers.
Second, although this is unquestionably a good change in institutionalist terms, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is without a political angle. As several observers have pointed out, $45,000 is far from a princely salary in Washington, D.C., one of the country’s most expensive cities. But the House employs thousands of people scattered in members’ district offices around the country—indeed, nearly half of employees working for member offices are stationed in districts. Members today represent more constituents than ever before, and so most have built up their district operations. And while the new minimum salary won’t go far in Washington or in Pelosi’s San Francisco district, it does sound like a fairly high starting salary for a junior constituency-services staffer living in rural Arkansas, Idaho, or Ohio. In practice, the floor may mean that members hailing from such districts—who are, of course, overwhelmingly Republicans—will be able to hire fewer talented people to work in their district offices. Like other federal minimum wage rules, the effects in Mississippi and Massachusetts are likely to be quite different. That may just make it more likely that it will be members from districts with lower cost of living who end up experimenting more with part-time workers, but it’s not hard to imagine that the change may deprive representatives of less costly areas of a subtle advantage they previously possessed.
Finally, we shouldn’t overestimate the centrality of low-end workers in member offices to the overall abilities of the House. Pelosi’s order also raises the maximum salary for someone working in a member office, to $203,700, which may be helpful for keeping senior talent on the Hill. But if the House wants to make its members better at mastering issues, perhaps the most important staffers are mid-level and senior staffers on congressional committees, whose specialization gives them the chance to build up subject-specific institutional memory that generalist members can then lean on. Unfortunately, while the MRA went up by 21 percent, committee funding was increased by only 10 percent. That figure might go up again next year, after the Jan. 6th Committee is no longer drawing on House funds, but that remains to be seen. Reformers who want to expand congressional capacity should keep up the pressure on this front.
Pelosi also announced another major new development for House staffing: Democrats will introduce a resolution that would facilitate unionization of staff. We will have to see how that plays out, and whether it will impinge upon the autonomy in hiring and firing that members depend on to ensure their implicit confidence in their staff. (If Democrats mostly end up dealing with unionized staffers and Republicans don’t, that would make for a fascinating natural experiment of sorts.) In the meantime, it is good to see the House demonstrating a willingness to adapt its practices and aim for institutional excellence.