Being a Capitol Hill staffer means working long hours and juggling multiple issues at any given time. The more than 17,000 congressional staffers working in the House and the Senate draft laws, help constituents navigate the complexities of the federal government and ensure their bosses have the information and knowledge they need to best represent the diverse interests of the public. From corresponding with constituents and monitoring the legislative schedule, to building and maintaining open lines of communication with the public and being in charge of specific policy or oversight issues, congressional staff are behind-the-scenes changemakers.
Staff are often directly impacted when Congress, as an institution, isn’t healthy. Today, the lack of institutional health partially stems from the fact that Congress has not invested in its staff in ways that match the value they add. The lack of investment translates into declining staff levels, diminishing institutional knowledge and policy know-how, and challenges such as outdated technology and a general lack of resources. Total congressional staffing levels, committee staffing levels and staffing levels at the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office also have all declined over the last four decades.
From an organizational health perspective, Congress must have a talented, engaged and diverse workforce that has the resources to help lawmakers deal with a wide array of challenging and complex issues. Yet, congressional staff often don’t represent the diversity of the people members of Congress serve, can’t afford to take unpaid internships or do not have salaries that match the expertise required for their jobs. Moreover, staff don’t have the resources they need to do their jobs or, when the resources are available, they don’t have the time or the support of their bosses to take advantage of those resources. Finally, the pandemic and the events of January 6 have added a whole new set of challenges for staff, ranging from work-life balance to mental health and safety.
Lack of congressional staff diversity
While today’s Congress is more diverse than it’s ever been, congressional staff remain largely white. The barriers to entry for potential employees of color are still high, thus locking many people out of the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. “I have friends who were the only person of color in a white member’s office and there are a lot of members who have no people of color in their office,” a House committee staffer said.
Research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies from 2020 shows that although 40% of the U.S. population is non-white, only11% of all top staff members working in Senate offices were people of color. On the House side, another study showed that only 13.7% of top House staff members were people of color. Many staffers we interviewed spoke about the difficult hiring process and how their race made it harder for them to get a job: “It’s very difficult to get a job in the Senate, and it’s very, very difficult to get a job in the Senate as a Black person,” a Senate staff assistant said. This lack of equitable access to jobs on Capitol Hill impacts the congressional talent pipeline further down the line, too, as the numbers show: While Blacks make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, only 3.1% of the top Senate staff members are Black.
This lack of diversity—which is an issue among lawmakers, too —often means that the individuals who get to influence and shape policymaking do not always reflect the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of the people they serve. “If you look at the members, there’s only ever been a few Black senators.
The House is a little bit better, but the kind of people that you want running for office are not always the kind of people who are running for office,” a communications staffer said. She continued: “There was a quote that I read the other day that said: ‘Real people, with real struggles, should be the ones closest to real power,’ and it’s kind of cheesy, but I think that’s very true and that’s not really the case right now.”
The challenge of diversity, equity and inclusion is compounded by the fact that there isn’t a systemic way for the House and the Senate to collect demographic data on congressional staff. Beyond the surveys from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, there isn’t a central repository of data to help guide efforts to make the workforce more diverse. If Congress can’t tell what the makeup of its workforce is, it can’t fully address the challenges of diversity and inclusion.
Racial and economic inequalities for legislative interns
Internships—the most common entry point for junior staff on the Capitol Hill—are also a barrier for staff of color and, in general, those without the financial means. The long hours and low pay in a city with high living costs such as Washington, D.C., often means that young people without an economic safety net are either automatically locked out of the chance at having an internship or must go the extra mile to apply for stipends or scholarships. A recent report from the group Pay Our Interns found that the average total stipend per intern was approximately $1,986.75 in the Senate and $1,612.53 in the House. For reference, Pay Our Interns estimates the cost of living for a Senate internship to be $4,438 (which usually lasts 5 weeks) and $6,514 for a House internship (which tends to last 7 weeks).
And even after great strides were made to make paid internships the norm, the disparities persist: The same report from Pay Our Interns also found that 76% of the people with paid internships on Capitol Hill were white, while 6.7% were Black and 7.9% were Latino. Finally, the report also found that “students who attended private universities were better represented in Congress than students at public universities relative to the number of students attending each type of university nationally.”
Low, uncompetitive pay
Another challenge faced by many congressional staff is pay, which often renders a career in Congress a temporary pursuit or one that has to be supplemented by a part-time job.
After some time spent in Congress, many staff take jobs in the private sector where their skills are more highly valued. Research shows that former Capitol Hill staffers with several years of relevant experience can, within a year of switching jobs, make substantially more money by becoming lobbyists. When describing what it’s like to be a congressional staffer, a committee staffer sums it up: “These people work long hours, have limited technological support and make little money.”
Studies in the private sector as well as the Partnership’s Best Places to Work rankings show that beyond pay, factors such as engagement and commitment to a mission are key to employee retention. Nonetheless, in the case of Congress, low pay is a central barrier to long-term service in Congress.
From 2001 to 2019, median pay for staff in House offices largely declined. While the decline is not as dramatic for Senate staff, between 2001 and 2020, for example, the median pay for press secretary decreased by 23.35%. The low pay makes living in an expensive city like Washington, D.C. challenging, and often leads to staff pursuing other, better-paying jobs. In 2019, the average tenure for staff on Capitol Hill was 3.1 years.
Brian Greer, who worked in Congress as defense advisor for over a decade, said that the lack of competitiveness in salaries with the private sector “gets extremely challenging as you get older. If you want to do the adult stuff like buy a house, have a family, pay for childcare, it’s very hard to afford that on a congressional staffer salary”.
The low pay and high turnover rate are, in turn, reflected in the ability of Congress to live up to its mission to serve the people it represents. It takes time to learn about the rules, procedures and the many complex issues on which Congress must legislate. When congressional staff leave their jobs, they take institutional knowledge with them, and loss can hamper congressional effectiveness and institutional health.
Lack of resources
A survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation found that only 15% of congressional staff are satisfied with their chamber’s performance in the realm of “staff knowledge, skills and abilities,” which are key to supporting members’ official duties.” Wilsar Johnson, who was the director of digital strategy at the Congressional Black Caucus, put it simply: “Congress is always running out of breath to catch up and it should be the opposite. Congress has too much responsibility without enough resources or money or people to meet those goals. The math doesn’t add up.”
This gap stems not only from the high turnover rate, but from the barriers faced by staff regarding professional development. “For younger staff,” a House committee staffer said, “I would say there’s really no talent pipeline for how to do stuff…You have to really take initiative or else you’ll feel like you’re letting down your member and the community they serve. While professional development is very important, there’s little support.”
Even when resources are made available, many interviewees spoke of not having enough time to take advantage of workshops and training sessions offered by staff associations, the Congressional Staff Academy or other organizations. That’s the case for staff as well as members themselves, as a professional staff member puts it: “I just don’t have time… Or when I have a supervisor who I think could really use a training on leadership or on how to give feedback, they don’t have time for that either. They’re running all around.” Alternatively, some staff were unaware of the existing resources to support them in their roles.
New challenges from the pandemic and January 6
In addition to the challenges around diversity, equity, pay and professional development, the COVID-19 pandemic created a new set challenges for staff during the past year. On top of some initial technological hurdles due to quickly having to move congressional work to a virtual environment, interviewees mentioned struggling to have any work-life balance when the lines between work and personal life were blurred. For many, a commitment to not letting the pandemic prevent them from working for the public kept them going during a very difficult year.
While the pandemic was huge challenge for staff and Congress as a whole, the events of January 6, 2021, when a mob stormed the Capitol in a violent protest over the 2020 presidential election, have added a layer of stress and struggle for many and, in particular, for staff of color.
When asked about what kinds of resources were made available in the aftermath of the insurrection, most mentioned some therapy and counseling sections, but were also quick to highlight that they often had to choose between taking care of their mental health and showing up for work. Others talked about appreciating the opportunity to have free counseling, but said the support offered to them wasn’t as all-encompassing as they would have liked.
Another staffer mentioned that conversations about what safety looks like are still ongoing, but that it’s still hard to see people not “being held liable or accountable” for what happened.