- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The most powerful nation on Earth is run largely by 24-year-olds.

High turnover and lack of experience in congressional offices are leaving staffs increasingly without policy and institutional knowledge, a Washington Times analysis of a decade of House and Senate personnel records shows — leaving a vacuum that usually is filled by lobbyists.

Most Senate staffers have worked in the Capitol for less than three years. For most, it is their first job ever. In House offices, one-third of staffers are in their first year, while only 1 in 3 has worked there for five years or more.

Among the aides who work on powerful committees where the nation’s legislation takes shape, resumes are a little longer: Half have four years of experience.

When Americans wonder why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, this could be a clue. It’s also a sharp difference from the average government employee: Unlike many state and federal workers with comfortable salaries, pensions and seemingly endless tenures, those in the halls of power are more likely to be inexperienced and overworked.

Low pay for high-stress jobs with less-than-stellar prospects for advancement takes a toll on institutional memory and expertise.

While senators make $174,000, staff assistants and legislative correspondents — by far the most common positions in the Senate — have median pay of $30,000 and $35,000, respectively, significantly less than Senate janitors and a fairly low salary for college graduates in a city as expensive as Washington.

Historical pay records were transcribed from book form by the website Legistorm.

The size of committee and members’ staffs have remained the same over the past decade, and salaries have often not risen with inflation — or at all.

Theaverage legislative counsel in the House made $56,000 last year, less than in 2007. While pay for parking-lot attendants in the House increased from $26,000 to $49,000 in the past decade, pay for staff assistants, who make up the bulk of the House’s workforce, rose from $26,000 to $30,000. That puts them in the bottom fifth of the region’s college-educated workforce.

It means that young workers have proximity to enormous power while surviving on a meager budget — dual forces that come together to push congressional staffers through the “revolving door” to highly paid K Street lobbyists. In the revolving door, former congressional staff and members use their personal connections and insider knowledge to attempt to pull the levers of power on behalf of a paying client. A former congressional staffer is among the most valuable assets a company desiring legislative change can buy.

But it also means that staffers are often forced to rely on lobbyists while they still work for Congress, sometimes for the purest of reasons: While lobbyists with decades of experience in energy policy or other arcane areas are common, such depth of experience is nearly nonexistent on Capitol Hill. Though 10 years of experience in a home-state office, which handles constituent services and other less stressful concerns, is not rare, a person with a decade of experience is few and far between in Washington.

Without a foundation

“Who are congressional staff going to turn to?” asked Daniel Schuman, a former Congressional Research Service (CRS) lawyer who now studies policy at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. “The experienced staff aren’t there. But lobbyists and think tanks are beating down the door: ‘Here’s the legislation, here are the research materials and I’ve got the co-sponsors lined up.’”

As policy questions more frequently hinge on the nuances of technical matters, members of Congress are operating without the researchers and topical experts on which they have relied to cast informed votes.

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