With the rise of the permanent campaign, members of Congress find their attention increasingly split between political concerns like fundraising and doing their job as legislators. As a result, they often delegate the tasks of acquiring and assessing policy-relevant information to legislative staff. This is congressional capacity — the ability to carry out independent research and evaluate information for the purposes of policymaking. But what happens when lawmakers and their personnel lack the resources to perform this crucial analytical function?

A new report by New America sheds light on this question. Alexander Furnas and Timothy LaPira, the authors of the study, find that congressional capacity has declined over the past few decades, especially for legislative staff. The typical member’s legislative staff has declined by a third since the 103rd Congress. Low and declining wages, a decrease in resources allocated to the policy shop, and high turnover among young staff have resulted in “congressional brain drain.” The average staffer plans to leave Congress within five years for the private sector, and many head straight to K Street jobs that can pay three times as much. This is a problem for effective governance, and it reveals larger structural problems with respect to hiring practices and incentives.

Brain drain inhibits effective governance

Brain drain hampers the knowledge-gathering capacity that is necessary for effective, independent governance. Legislative staff exert significant influence on the policy agenda of members, who rely on their knowledge of issue portfolios. But staff are underpaid and overworked, and relatively inexperienced compared to lobbyists and special interest groups. The typical congressional staffer is under 40 years old, works 50 hours a week, and earns less than $40,000 a year. A legislative correspondent makes just over $25,000 and a legislative assistant makes just about $40,000.  Staffers typically are spread across two to six portfolios, while expected to interact with and assess information from well-paid, more experienced lobbyists who focus on single issues — and who often have had experience working as congressional staffers. 43 percent of staffers intend to leave for the private sector, and 46 percent of those intend to work in lobbying. And they do so fast — the average tenure for staffers is only 3.1 years (SD=1.9).

Staffers are often bright and highly motivated. But that is no match for the judgment and historical perspective that can only come from years of experience, especially against a background of increasing social, political, and legal complexity. The result is a worrisome information asymmetry between legislators and special interest groups, in which lobbyists have outsize power to influence legislative agendas. Indeed, there are often few other epistemic options for members and staffers with scarce attentional resources. Lobbyists take full advantage of this dynamic, as Lee Drutman and Steve Teles have long argued.

Brain drain thus leaves Congress bereft of the long-term expertise necessary for good governance. Special interests are subsidized by the taxpayer, who effectively pays for the institutional knowledge and training that makes former staffers good hires on K Street — and then bears the unseen costs of legislative agendas shaped by special interests. As Furnas and LaPira put it, “Working on the Hill is an entry-level position for K Street, rather than a stepping stone for a career in public service.”

Labor and representational asymmetries

What explains congressional brain drain? Budget constraints, especially for House members, play a significant role. House members’ representational allowance (MRA), which can be used for both personnel and any allowable expenses, has remained stagnant over the past decade in spite of inflation. By contrast, personnel spending in the Senate has remained stable over time due to greater flexibility for budgeting in senators’ official personnel and office expense account (SOPOEA). Yet there’s been a decline in the staff sizes of both chambers.

The MRA’s insufficiency is part of a general trend of diminished in-house expertise. Around 1980, Congress’s hiring capacity declined and flatlined. The size of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which provides investigative services to Congress, declined drastically, as well.

But stagnant budgets and staff downsizing are only part of the story. The revolving door to K Street is just the endpoint of a path paved by highly asymmetric structures. Congress is a buyer’s labor market, which allows members of Congress to leverage their superior bargaining position by paying no wages or very low wages. Over half of congressional staff begin their careers as interns, who are typically unpaid, and the median legislative assistant makes just over $35,000. This is barely the living wage of $35,194 for an adult with no children in Washington, D.C.

In effect, members exploit a buyer’s market to hire relatively privileged individuals who are both willing and, more importantly, able to work long hours for low to no pay. This dynamic is buttressed by a strong norm of loyalty to members and their ideological agendas.

One consequence of this race-to-the-bottom labor market is the underrepresentation of those from lower-income backgrounds and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) among staffers. Combine the low pay with the fact that job opportunities tend to be transmitted within informal social networks, and it’s no surprise that lower-income groups are underrepresented among staffers. BIPOC make up only 27 percent of Democratic staffers and only 6 percent of Republican staffers, whereas the U.S. Census estimates that only 60 percent of the U.S. population is non-Hispanic white. The disparity is visible relative to each party’s base as well. According to a recent Pew Research study, 40 percent of Democratic / Democratic-leaning voters and 17 percent of Republican / Republican-leaning voters are nonwhite.

Congressional Brain Drain: Legislative Capacity in the 21st Century
Alexander C. Furnas & Timothy M. LaPira

We can’t straightforwardly infer any policy implications from this representational asymmetry among staffers. Proportional demographic representation does not automatically entail substantive representation in terms of the issues that matter to BIPOC and lower-income populations, though there is some evidence that there is a positive relationship between demographic and substantive representation. But policy consequences aside, the disparity is at least suggestive of unequal opportunity structures that may prevent young people from these groups from having access to prestigious professional positions in Congress, and that, in turn, may influence the items on the policy agenda. This would be highly ironic for an institution of representative government, in which many members purport to strive for the ideal of equality of opportunity — that morally irrelevant characteristics such as socioeconomic status should neither aid nor hinder an individual’s life chances.

A “notable paradox”

Yet members need and value staffers who have experience and knowledge. This is reflected in the finding that age is the only variable that predicts salary; there is no such correlation for other demographic factors. And in a “procedural pop quiz” designed by the authors, the marginal reward for every additional answer a staffer could answer correctly was approximately $6,000 in salary.

The picture that emerges of Congress’ human capital is one of self-defeating practices. By leveraging the buyer’s market to drive down the costs of labor, members inadvertently set themselves on a path toward losing experienced and knowledgeable staffers, and they also hamper their ability to recruit staffers from underrepresented backgrounds. This has adverse consequences for governance.

To reduce the outsize influence that lobbyists have on policy agendas, members will need to slow the inevitable walk towards the revolving door. And to do that, fundamental changes are needed to target the labor market asymmetries that are beneficial for members in the short term but detrimental in the long term. Furnas and LaPira recommend, for example, that members increase staff pay, pay interns, improve labor market transparency, and centralize the labor market process to pull away from informal recruitment networks. These bottom-up reforms will not only go some way toward wresting back control of policy agendas from special interests — they are necessary for realizing the ideal of equal opportunity in the halls of Congress.

Valerie Soon is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Duke University, specializing in social and political philosophy and philosophy of social science.