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Congressional staffers, public shortchanged by high turnover, low pay
With the shuttering of the Office of Technology Assessment, a 200-member congressional support agency that closed in 1995 under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, members who are largely lawyers and rhetorical masters are asked to differentiate between competing proposals that only scientists might be able to evaluate effectively.
The technology office researched and summarized scientific and technological matters, ranging from acid rain to wireless phones, for members who, with an average age of 64 in the Senate and 58 in the House, are legislating on matters such as the Internet, which most spent much of their lives without. Typical of its work products was a decades-ago warning on the effect of technology on copyright law, a question lawmakers contentiously grappled with this year.
“It helped us to … better oversee the science and technology programs within the federal establishment,” said then-Rep. Amo Houghton, New York Republican, who served nine terms before retiring in 2005. The role of CRS, which provides research on topics beyond science and technology, has also been rolled back.
Brian Darling, a former Senate staffer who is now senior fellow for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he strongly supports smaller government, but sometimes symbolic cuts can backfire.
“Cutbacks at CRS to me don’t make a lot of sense, with their institutional knowledge. They put out a great nonpartisan work product. When crafting the legislative branch appropriation bill, members of Congress are trying to show they want to cut spending, but there can be repercussions,” he said.
Though it seems paradoxical, a lack of knowledge and resources by congressional staffers can make for waste, Mr. Schuman said, citing an inability to conduct oversight, agency regulations that are left unchallenged, loopholes slipped into laws that are giveaways for special interests and poorly implemented programs.
He pointed to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
“The department is a mess because people didn’t understand what would happen when you merge so many different agencies with different cultures,” he said. “It is bloated, inefficient and maladroit.”
A failure by Congress to “understand the laws it passed” and “innovations in the private sector” also led ultimately to a huge crunch and the massive bailouts with taxpayer money, he said.
Up and out
Consider the class of 2005. Of 186 Senate staff assistants who started that year, 82 percent had left by last year, 13 percent were still in the same position and the remaining 5 percent have moved up a notch. Of Senate legislative correspondents starting the same year, 83 percent have departed and the rest moved up.
In the House, of 105 people who started as legislative assistants, four made chief of staff in six years. Seven out of 10 left, and almost all the rest got other promotions.
As that group has come or gone, multiple other layers of congressional staff have been churned through. Among staffers who moved on from Congress in early 2010, three-quarters of departing staff assistants and legislative correspondents had two years or less under their belts.
Even policy wonks in the most nonpolitical of positions, “professional staff” in the Senate committees where most legislative work gets done, last only five years on average, from the time they got their first job in Congress to the time they found a new employer.
“When people get married or have kids, around 35, you either jump up in pay by $50,000 or you get out of there because you can’t make it anymore. Making that money for 10 years puts people behind for the rest of their lives in terms of retirement,” Mr. Schuman said.
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About the Author
Luke Rosiak is a projects reporter on The Washington Times’ investigative team. He formerly covered lobbying and campaign finance for two watchdog groups as well as transportation for The Washington Post. Luke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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