When people imagine a congressional staffer, they might picture the legislative assistant meeting with constituents, a press secretary drafting a media or floor statement, or a chief of staff attending an event with his or her member of Congress. There are many more things that congressional staff do at different levels to support the diverse work in the Legislative Branch to ensure it can carry out its constitutionally directed missions. Working on Capitol Hill often means less glamorous but critical tasks like answering phones, giving tours of the Capitol, reviewing legislative bills, drafting speeches, preparing memos, working with constituents, providing security, maintaining the library collections, or keeping the grounds manicured – all of which literally ensure that Congress can operate.
What might be most surprising is that the Legislative Branch has the smallest workforce among the three branches of government. Capitol Hill functions like a small city which requires a number of different people to make it work. Here is a look at the numbers:
All of these entities help underpin the diverse functions of Congress. In comparison, the Executive Branch has approximately 2 million full-time federal employees, meaning that there is one Legislative Branch employee for every 100 Executive Branch employees.
It is important to know that personal staff work in the offices of each individual member in Washington and in his or her district office. Committee staff do not work for an individual member, per se, but are rather focused on the issues within the jurisdiction of a committee (there are 21 standing committees in the House). They tend to work for either the majority or minority party and are responsible for bills, resolutions, or other products produced by that committee. Further, leadership staff works for the leadership teams of the majority and minority to advance that party’s agenda.
What does the day-to-day for a Hill staffer look like? That depends on many factors such as time of the year, job position, and level of experience. Some of the unifying experiences include long hours while juggling many diverse demands and issues, at times, all at a very fast pace. The downside? These staff work for lower pay than most staff of the Executive Branch, and especially compared to the private sector, without any long-term job security. At the same time, it is rewarding to play a direct role in assisting a constituent, advancing a new policy, and ensuring that the Executive Branch is carrying out its duties. As a congressional staff member, that person is literally keeping our government running.
What are the challenges of being a congressional staffer? For starters, long hours, stressful and demanding work, and low salary often lead to a high turnover rate on Capitol Hill. The average congressional staff salary is $30,000-50,000. While that might seem normal, or even high, compared to other parts of the country, Washington, D.C. is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world to live with an average monthly cost of $1,112 excluding rent (which averages ~$2,000/month). With a steady stream of people leaving the Hill, there is a real loss of institutional knowledge and experience, making it hard for lawmakers to retain staff who have a deep understanding of the legislative process. For the average American, this often means a slower legislative process, as congressional staff are the boots-on-the-ground working behind the scenes to advance legislation. A result of the high turnover, one potential perk of working in Congress is the ability to quickly move up the staff ladder; for example, one can start as an intern, and within the course of a few years, move up to a high-level staffer. However, the quick climb often occurs with little management training or opportunities for professional development.
With the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, there is a real opportunity to address these challenges. For starters, there is a dire need for increased staff retention. This has been a common theme during all of the committee’s hearings thus far. One way of achieving this, without necessarily increasing staff salary (which would require raising member salaries since staff aren’t allowed to make more than the lawmakers themselves), is more opportunities for development and more paid benefits, such as student loan repayment or child care. While there are multiple paths forward, one thing is clear: congressional staff are crucial to keeping our government running. As the committee looks at ways to modernize the institution, congressional staff must not be excluded.