Congress has an essential role to play in American democracy. It’s in Congress that all federal laws are created and passed, where executive branch oversight happens and where the public has a platform to voice its needs and concerns. Congress, as an institution, is the ultimate forum for compromise, healthy political conflict and alliance-building. And when it lives up to its ideals, it has the power to transform people’s lives. Congress is at its best when it demonstrates a problem-solving mind-set that helps government work better and delivers results on issues that matter to the public.
Yet, gridlocked, dysfunctional, polarized and hyper-partisan are only a sampling of the adjectives used to describe Congress today. It’s not trusted by the public. It seldom invests in its capacity to listen, legislate and lead. And it doesn’t represent the diversity of the people it serves. Moreover, the recent shocks to American democracy—the pandemic, the recession and the Capitol insurrection—have left the institution in a fragile state.
But the future of Congress doesn’t have to be a grim one.
The Alliance for Congress is a new initiative of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service that will work to build a forward-looking Congress that functions more effectively and is capable of tackling big problems for the people it serves. This initiative is an extension of the Partnership’s mission to build a better government and to make our democracy stronger. Over time, the initiative will seek to answer two broad questions: “What does a healthy Congress look like?” and “How do we build it?”
This first Alliance study focuses on these questions from the perspective of individuals who make up the backbone of Congress: the staff who work for senators and congressmen and on Senate and House committees. This report’s purpose is twofold: 1) To offer a glimpse into how the staff who work on Capitol Hill view the health of Congress and its potential and 2) To highlight how a commitment to public service by House and Senate staff has contributed to the institution’s strengths and enabled it to create pockets of success where Congress lives up to its mission to serve the public.
We found that Capitol Hill staff, who have a substantial role in the policymaking process and are central to helping Congress become an effective organization, see it as a poorly functioning institution. When it comes to its ability to adapt to change, to seize opportunities and to be an inclusive, diverse and representative institution, they say Congress faces a major gap between today’s reality and its potential.
Our interviews also revealed that congressional staff are passionate about their jobs, want to see the institution become more efficient and effective, and are committed to public service.
This study identifies key components of organizational health that have enabled congressional successes and notes where and why those attributes are not systemic. And it looks to the future by highlighting areas of opportunity for growth and improvement.
Why should organizational health matter for an institution like Congress? While organizational health is not a traditional measure for Congress—lawmakers tend to measure their success by number of bills passed, the number of hearings held or days spent in session—an assessment of performance that goes beyond output is crucial if the institution is to become more effective and efficient. Through our work, we hope to spark a conversation about the health of Congress and what it will take to make the legislative branch a better functioning institution of our democracy.
In the private sector, the concept of organizational health is a common one: businesses often measure their ability to clearly communicate vision, mission and strategy, and to adapt to change and seize opportunities. Performance audits enable organizations to manage their work as well as to renew and transform themselves. Some of these models can be adapted and applied to create a more holistic understanding of Congress as an institution, its challenges and how it can overcome them.
For the purposes of this study, organizational health of Congress was measured through an amalgamation of different sources’ approach to the topic, and it looks at the health of Congress through three broad markers:
During the course of three months, we interviewed current and former staff from member offices and committees. We spoke to staff from all career levels and both sides of the aisle, and asked them about what the institution does well and what it would take for the legislative branch to thrive and better serve the public.
We recognize the answers to the three markers vary depending on an individual’s relationship with Congress. And while members, the public, congressional support staff and other stakeholders have a different understanding of the health of Congress, we focused on staff for three reasons: 1) Because of the crucial support role they play, staffers are directly impacted when Congress isn’t performing like it should; 2) Congressional staff have been directly affected by the systemic disinvestment in congressional capacity for the last 40 years; and 3) The pandemic and the Capitol insurrection have affected congressional staff in ways that should be captured, understood and remedied if we want to make Congress healthier. Ultimately, congressional staff are a crucial component of any effort to make Congress a better and stronger institution.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Although workplace issues were of paramount concern to the congressional staffers, all of those interviewed expressed a deep passion for what they do. Much like employees in the executive branch, congressional staff also showed a high degree of commitment to public service.
While every office, committee and political party may diverge on the means to achieve that mission, the clarity on what Congress is meant to do was nearly unanimous: To serve the people. From an organizational health perspective, this shared sense of mission has been key to the ability of Congress to do its job and has been particularly important when the institution has been paralyzed by disagreement.
Congressional staffers’ commitment to public service, a passion for learning and the desire to make a difference are some of key reasons they have sought to work on Capitol Hill.
Democratic and Republican staffers at all levels spoke of a commitment to giving back. For many, their immigrant, military or first-generation college graduate backgrounds propelled them to pursue a career in public service by working in Congress.
“I loved, I loved working there. The pace was intense, but it was great to be doing something that matters.”
Wilsar Johnson, former director of digital strategy, Congressional Black Caucus
“I never met anybody there who was there for the wrong reasons.”
Alex Gallo, former professional staff member, House Armed Services Committee
Former Republican communications director
Interviewees talked about being surrounded by talented individuals at work, and about how a career in Congress is an education in and of itself. For them, it was an opportunity for hands-on learning about the complexities of the legislative process from experienced people, and to work with individuals committed to the mission of making people’s lives better.
Congressional communications staffer
Jason Schmid, former minority budget director and Subcommittee on Strategic Forces staff leader
“It was chance to make an impact and to work for somebody I really respected and knew I could learn from and do productive and important work with. At the end of the day, there’s no greater honor than being able to serve the public in some way.”
Will Quinn, former professional staff member, Senate Armed Services Committee
Because of the complexity and magnitude of responsibilities, congressional staff are often in the unique position to help craft laws that can be transformational to people’s lives. Interviewees told stories about the people they met, the meetings they were part of and the instances when they presented opportunities to their bosses to act that led to real, tangible changes.
Professional staff member
“It was the most incredible time. I got to witness incredible moments of history in the making, and I got to work on and pass 4,000 pages of legislation.”
Gabriel Noronha, former special assistant for the Senate Armed Services Committee
Ananda Bhatia, clerk and research associate for the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress
A shared vision and values are not enough to make Congress a healthy institution. After all, agreement on the purpose of Congress or even a deep commitment to public service does not automatically yield successful performance. For Congress to be a healthy institution, members and staff must work and successfully execute on that shared vision and mission. They must seize opportunities and be flexible enough so they can adapt to change.
The four examples below show what a healthy Congress looks like at a micro level from the perspective of congressional staff. Unfortunately, these success stories are the exception rather than the rule in Congress today. Yet, they shine a light on the types of models, processes and attitudes that could be scaled and systematized across the institution.
When Congress works, leaders put their egos aside to lead change by being self-aware and by engaging with staff as experts. When leaders become champions of diversity, equity and inclusion, they also can open doors to new voices and perspectives, thus making the work stronger and more representative of the diversity of the public.
Major legislative wins are still possible when bipartisan and bicameral collaboration are at the core of the lawmaking process. And overcoming times of high uncertainty and instability becomes possible when the institution and its people are open to embracing change through innovation or technology modernization.
The result are pockets of organizational health where alignment on vision, mission and values meet a desire to make the institution work.
Beyond their willingness to serve the public, many of our interviewees mentioned their bosses—members as well as other staff—as one of their top reasons for committing to a career in public service. Research shows that having a good manager is a key factor for an employee’s job satisfaction, and that’s no different for congressional staff. In fact, when talking about instances where Congress works, interviewees talked about leaders who:
Congress must have the talent and expertise required to solve the biggest problems facing the country today. “It takes recruiting, a good mentor and a good manager who is willing to take a chance on you, to push you out there. It takes an institution to invest in you and to see you as the future of that institution,” said former House staffer Brian Greer.
While Congress has many shortcomings when it comes to how it manages its workforce, there are some promising developments and existing resources that seek to:
Gridlock and unwillingness to compromise are common terms used to describe Congress today. But year in and year out, bipartisan and bicameral collaboration leads Congress to pass a major piece of legislation: The National Defense Authorization Act. For 60 consecutive years, the NDAA has authorized defense appropriations. It’s also a major success story of Congress coming together to fulfill its mission.
For staff who have the opportunity to work on the NDAA, there’s something unique and special about the process. Through a yearlong exercise in building trust, members and staff from both sides of the aisle come together and, as Gabriel Noronha put it, “It’s stunning how successful it is.” The success is so well-known that Armed Services committee staff tend to share best practices with other House and Senate committee staff. This success, according to staff, largely stems from three factors:
Rapid technology modernization along with demographic and cultural developments requires Congress to adapt to change so it can continue to fulfill its mission. While most staffers interviewed recognized the slowness at which Congress embraces change and incorporates it into its rules and processes, they were also quick to point out how the pandemic triggered a series of innovations throughout offices and committees.
“We know that Congress is capable of change because we’ve seen it happen. I think one of those bright spots is the way Congress adapted to the pandemic…people got creative, everyone started working from home right away,” said Ananda Bhatia, a clerk and research associate for the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. During the past year and half, Congress adapted to and embraced change by:
A skilled and motivated workforce is a first necessary step toward creating a healthier Congress.
Looking ahead, Congress has an opportunity to better prepare, equip and invest in its professional workforce, and take steps to retain seasoned staff members who possess valuable expertise.
House and Senate staff members interviewed were unanimous in their belief that a career in Congress must be made affordable to everyone—as opposed to only the wealthy and well-connected. They said congressional staff also should be recognized for their commitment to public service and their work. And they asserted that leadership should play a key role in ensuring that staff members have the support, the training and the resources they need, and that the workforce become more diverse to reflect the nation’s population. Good, systemic data collection to inform those efforts is also key.
Parallel to staffing improvements, our interviews found that in order for Congress to become a healthier institution, it should be more open to change and resist the urge to stick with the status quo by proactively addressing operational, managerial and human resource challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic created many new challenges for lawmakers and staff alike, but also forced unexpected innovations. This included use of technology for remote work and congressional hearings, for proxy voting and for electronic signatures that enabled lawmakers and House and Senate aides to do their jobs more efficiently and in a safe way.
Congress should learn lessons from the pandemic experience and expand on the use of modern technology and other innovations that occurred out of necessity. On issues of leadership and stewardship, talent and collaboration, the success stories outlined in this report also offer a glimpse of what is possible.
Congress has the ability to change, improve how it functions to better serve the public. A key to reaching those goals includes providing increased support for its professional staff.
Associate, Research, Analysis and Evaluation
Senior Writer and Editor
Loren DeJonge Schulman
Vice President, Research, Analysis and Evaluation
Vice President, Communications
Betsy Wright Hawkings
Strategic Consultant, Alliance for Congress
Director, Alliance for Congress
Manager, Research, Analysis and Evaluation and Project Lead
Vice President, Government Affairs