Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.
There is an old, possibly apocryphal joke in Congress about a member who had a reputation for lashing out at his staff. During a recess an aide was giving a tour and walked into the member’s personal office. The visitor noticed an “X” taped on the floor about 10 feet away from the lawmaker’s desk. The visitor asked, “Is that where the member likes you to stand in meetings?” “No,” the staffer replied, “that’s how far he can throw the phone.”
The recent, extraordinary outpouring of anonymous congressional staff quotes on Instagram is shining a light on some of the open secrets of working for Congress. Significant numbers of staff experience poor working conditions, low pay and sometimes demeaning, even abusive, treatment by their bosses. As an organization that has been studying this unique work environment for 45 years, we at the Congressional Management Foundation were not surprised.
Congressional staffers have had a lot to say about their jobs:
“These days we just work, work, work … in inadequate facilities for extremely long hours.”
“The biggest challenge for keeping staff in Congress today is the toxic political atmosphere.”
“Unless the House wants to rely entirely on the advice of lobbyists and Washington insiders, it is imperative that the degradation to House salaries is halted and reversed.”
These comments are not from “Dear White Staffers,” but from an open-ended question on a CMF survey conducted … 10 years ago. We’ve heard similar comments from staff for decades, and the toxicity of the political environment has only grown since Jan. 6, 2021. In a snap CMF poll of about 100 congressional staffers about three months after the attack on the Capitol, we found that 57 percent of those from both parties said they had to field threatening messages on a “daily or near daily basis.”
Despite this, Congress remains a prize on a resume. Usually, staffers turn over fast and others are waiting for their chance. But that may be changing. Recently, I spoke with a senior Senate manager who is used to fielding a constant flood of unsolicited resumes from job seekers. “Lately,” she said, “the flood has become a trickle.”
Consider these numbers from CMF surveys:
- Only 5 percent of congressional staff are very satisfied with their chamber’s human resource infrastructure.
- Just 41 percent are very satisfied with their “overall office culture.”
- And less than one quarter — 22 percent — said they were very satisfied with “communications between employees and senior management.”
In 2018, the House of Representatives recognized the perils of mismanagement — not just to the institution of Congress, but also to members’ ability to serve their constituents. This was the reasoning behind the creation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. In three years, the committee has made more than 150 recommendations and has been a shining example of bipartisan collaboration to solve pressing problems.
But more must be done. The survey by the Progressive Staff Association, which documented a “toxic” work environment, and the pay study by Issue One highlighting that many junior staff aren’t even paid a living wage — just the latest in a long list of warning signs. Congress must treat this as a crisis — it must reform Congress as a workplace before it’s too late.
CMF urges Congress to make the following changes to improve workplace conditions for staff and enhance the House and Senate as desirable careers for public servants.
Establish a salary threshold for junior staff. Too many staffers have to take a second job just to make ends meet. Let’s compare Congress to the executive branch, where a new junior level staff assistant, GS-5, working at the Internal Revenue Service would start at a salary of $40,883. There are many staff assistants and legislative correspondents working in the House for less than that amount. A minimum salary floor would ensure a decent living wage for staff. Public servants charged with helping the legislative branch craft laws that benefit all Americans shouldn’t have to hold a second job or apply for food stamps to get by. The Select Committee on Modernization of Congress is the perfect bipartisan advisor on this topic and could make a recommendation, having studied congressional salaries and benefits for three years.
Pay overtime. In 1995, with great fanfare, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which purportedly would force Congress to live by the same laws as the rest of America. Unfortunately, Congress has used a loophole in the law’s implementation to avoid paying employees overtime as if it were a private entity. Here’s how the loophole works: The Congressional Accountability Act applies certain rights and protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to congressional staff, among them overtime. However, Congress hasn’t kept up with passing the implementing regulations establishing a minimum salary threshold for employees. The Department of Labor has changed the minimum salary threshold for overtime eligibility to $35,568 for American businesses. Because Congress has not kept up, the threshold for overtime remains what it was in 1996: $13,000. Congress should thoroughly examine this and make changes to ensure the institution is not only living up to the letter of the Congressional Accountability Act but the spirit, as well.
Fix unfairness in the student loan repayment program. Currently, some House staff get more student loan benefits than others through a quirk in the way this important program was set up. The House should change the student loan repayment program so that all staff have equal opportunity to equal benefits. Instead of doling out these benefits per office they should be apportioned per employee, just like other employment benefits. Currently, each office receives the same amount and independently decides how to distribute it among staff. If one office has four staffers utilizing the program, and another office has two, the staffers in the office with fewer participating could be getting greater benefits. Would you distribute transit benefits this way, with one office giving some staff $150 per month in pre-tax benefits and another office giving staff $200? We recommend changing the student loan repayment program to replicate transit or health care benefits and transfer all administration of the program to institutional offices of the House.
Raise the staffer-per-office cap. The number of staff per office in the House was established by law in 1979. Can you name me any other industry that established a maximum cap on employees during the disco era? The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has recommended raising the cap on the number of staff currently serving in member offices. This recommendation also was included in a little-noticed House inspector general report released last month. This limit often prevents offices from offering opportunities to worthy employees or intern candidates. For example, we know of many offices that could accommodate more part-time staff or paid interns if the cap was changed. And, if there is resistance to lifting or eliminating the staff ceiling, perhaps consider a carve-out that certain individuals would not count against the ceiling, such as interns, veterans, individuals with disabilities, etc.
Enhance the diversity of congressional staff. The Congressional Management Foundation began documenting the demographics of congressional staff in the 1980s. This important work was continued recently by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion released an amazing interactive report in 2021. Of course, there are logical social justice reasons for diversifying the congressional workforce, but there are managerial reasons as well. In the private sector, research has demonstrated that more diverse businesses are more profitable. A 2001 CMF study showed that 3.1 percent of staff in a “leadership” position in Senate personal offices were Black. A similar study by the Joint Center examining top staff in Senate offices for 2015-2020 showed no change. A Congress that does not reflect the constituents it represents can hardly be called a “representative body.” Congress needs to make significantly more investments in diversifying their workforce in all senses of the word.
The comments from “Dear White Staffers” also suggest that staffers don’t know, or are afraid to exercise, their rights as employees. The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights was set up just for this purpose. The House of Representatives recently established a new onboarding program for employees — just like you might experience in a company — which includes information on employee rights. The Senate needs to follow this example to ensure employees have a voice in their workplace and treatment.
These are just some basic proposals Congress should adopt. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has dozens more, all worthy of consideration. And, we have not even touched on the individual improvements members of Congress and congressional managers should adopt, which can only be done on an office by office basis. And we’re pained to point out that there are not just managerial reasons for improvement. In recent years two members of Congress were forced to resign over the mismanagement of their offices: one for alleged financial malfeasance and another for allowing an apparent hostile work environment to continue. An improved office culture results in lower turnover and a more engaged team, resulting in political benefits to the member of Congress.
While it’s always easy to bash Congress, dismissing it as a backward and hostile work environment does not provide a complete picture of congressional staff and Congress as a workplace. In a 2011 CMF survey we asked a simple question: “What does working in Congress mean to you?” We received more than 600 positive comments, nearly all proclaiming the employees’ patriotism and humbly conveying how honored they felt to be public servants.
While the working conditions in Congress may have deteriorated in recent years and enthusiasm for public service diminished because of the pandemic, threats and attacks, one thing hasn’t changed: Congress is still populated with an amazing group of public servants dedicated to improving the lives of the American people. House and Senate leaders have a responsibility to create the type of workplace where these public servants can grow and thrive as professionals in the service of the nation.