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Experienced staff promote effective lawmaking

Experienced staff promote effective lawmaking
© Greg Nash

Members of Congress are wrestling with the 97 bipartisan recommendations put forward last year by the newly reestablished Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Among them are proposals to increase legislative staff paySupporters argue that salary increases are needed to recruit and retain the best legislative aides. Yet, the public is skeptical about spending more on Congress, which they judge as not doing a very good job.

At the Center for Effective Lawmaking, we know that with respect to congressional staff, we get what we pay for. We find that retaining experienced legislative staff is crucial to Congress doing its job better, in terms of lawmaking effectiveness.

We generate legislative effectiveness scores for every member of Congress since the 1970s. The scores combine 15 metrics based on how many bills each member introduces, how far they advance toward law, and the how substantial those proposals are. Our scores show which members of Congress are most effective as lawmakers. They also reveal the conditions that contribute to their success.

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In recently published research, we explored the lawmaking benefits from hiring and retaining experienced legislative staff. Over our study’s time period, some legislators’ staff collectively had decades of experience on Capitol Hill; others had little or no experience at all.

Representatives with highly experienced legislative staffs advanced more (and more substantively significant) bills to law. The effects were particularly strong for two groups. First, committee chairs — who are well positioned to move legislation through Congress — made remarkably good use of experienced staff. Second, the most junior House members were much more effective when they had experienced staff showing them the lawmaking ropes.

Among the 529 first-term House members in our study, 18 hired an entire legislative staff lacking any Capitol Hill experience whatsoever. In contrast, a handful of freshmen hired staff with a cumulative experience of more than 20 years. Most new members (more than 80 percent) hired staff with a combined Capitol Hill experience between two and 12 years.

The difference in lawmaking effectiveness across this range was significant. On average, those new Representatives with a combined staff experience of 12 years scored about 25 percent higher in their legislative effectiveness than those with two years of staff experience. Put another way, freshmen with ten more years of staff experience performed equivalently to members in their third or fourth congressional term. Moreover, the impact of experienced staff was even greater among majority-party freshmen.

Beyond the value of experienced staff for chairmen and freshmen, a slightly different story emerges for other Representatives. Here it was not the cumulative experience of their legislative staff that mattered. Rather, it was whether they employed at least one senior staffer with long-standing Capitol Hill experience. Representatives who hired and retained a highly experienced senior staffer (regardless of the collective staff experience in their office) were notably more effective as lawmakers.

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Unfortunately, however, there are not enough highly experienced staff members to go around. The average tenure of legislative staff on Capitol Hill is three years. Low compensation is among the main reasons so many move on to more lucrative positions, including as lobbyists.

Another reason they leave is frustration at not accomplishing much in the current gridlocked and polarized Congress. Here, we see the opportunity for a virtuous cycle. Higher pay could induce staff to stay longer. And that experience translates into lawmaking successes, making their commitment more fulfilling.

In contrast to our finding regarding staff experience, there were no noticeable benefits from having a larger legislative staff nor from dedicating a larger portion of one’s office budget to legislative staff. Thus, targeted investments in retaining senior staff may have greater lawmaking benefits than general spending to increase staff size or salaries across the board.

Beyond our focus on lawmaking effectiveness, there may be other benefits to increasing staff salaries, from allowing a better demographic reflection of the American public to helping with congressional oversight and constituency services.

But the research is clear. For those who feel that Congress is not adequately addressing the country’s public policy needs, investing in experienced legislative staff provides a significant bang for the buck.

Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics, with appointments at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at UVA. Alan Wiseman is the Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University. Volden and Wiseman are co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.