Dysfunction in Congress spoils the work life of congressional staff

The latest research shows wide-and-deep dissatisfaction among congressional staff members.

Few workforces have been studied and dissected as much as that of the two million-strong executive branch of the federal government. There’s another smaller, if no less crucial workforce. It belongs to Congress. The latest research shows wide-and-deep dissatisfaction among congressional staff members. For details, the Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with the President and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, Brad Fitch.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And you have surveyed members of the congressional staff. What is it? About 30,000 plus or minus. Tell us about the survey and what you were asking and what you found out.

Brad Fitch Well, we wanted to explore their attitudes about the functionality, civility and the capacity of the U.S. Congress to do its job as a Democratic legislature. Probably the main finding was not positive, but not shockingly, that only two out of ten staffers would say that Congress is functioning as a legislature should. And this was equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Generally speaking, I have that view. They also had differing views on staying in the Congress. Nearly half of them said they were going to leave the Congress or thinking of leaving the Congress, especially on the Republican side. Six out of ten staffers on the Republican side said they were thinking of leaving the Congress due to heated rhetoric within their own party. So clearly, the Partisan divide that has been affecting a lot of things in our nation is also affecting the congressional staff workforce.

Tom Temin So it sounds like the acrimony that seems real, you know, among members flows down to the people that are actually doing the day-to-day work of crafting bills, or do they still kind of get along with the people from the other party?

Brad Fitch I’d have to say yes and no. One of the unknown sort of secrets of Washington is that there is a great deal of bipartisan collaboration, especially in the Senate, between parties of staff members and senior staff members. And we actually saw that that there was great agreement among Democrats and Republicans when we asked whether or not civility was very important to a functioning legislature. 85% of Republican staff and 70% of Democratic staff said civility was very important. 60% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats said encouraging bipartisanship was very important and a huge degree. 96% of Democrats and 98% of Republicans agree with this statement. It is necessary for senators and representatives to collaborate across party lines. So, on one level, you’re right. There is certainly a degree of partisanship that exists even at the staff levels. But there’s also and you saw this in the open-ended answers, a rich desire among staff members from members of Congress to collaborate in a bipartisan way to address the needs of the American public.

Tom Temin And one of the findings I found, well, maybe not so surprising, given the state of affairs in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas, but there actually is some level of anxiety about safety, physical safety of people working on the Hill.

Brad Fitch Yeah. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans said that they are experiencing threatening messages at least somewhat frequently. And these are high numbers, like 73% of Republicans, 68% of Democrats. And it’s kind of terrible to think about where you work, and you have to go to an environment where you’re going to be receiving death threats. And we all know that since 2016, the Capitol Police have reported there’s been an increase in death threats of 5 to 10 times in magnitude coming in to the Capitol Hill switchboard. Unfortunately, the other finding and there was a bit of a divide between Democrats and Republicans. When asked whether members of staff feel safe doing their jobs. Only 21% of Democratic staff were satisfied with that, compared to 61% of Republican staff. And in the open-ended answers to the questions we posed, we just have to accept that, especially for Democrats, we still live in a post January 6th world. I’m a Washingtonian. I’ve been here for four decades. And you don’t go a few days without another article being in the news about a January 6th rioter. An insurrection is either being arrested or convicted or going on trial. And that’s just a recurring, you know, nightmare for many staffers. And clearly the data shows that it’s having an effect on Democratic staff, especially.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Brad Fitch. He’s president and CEO of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation. This is the second of this type of survey you’ve done. And sort of like the Fed’s survey that is done in the executive branch by OMB every year. Do you think you’ll do this regularly?

Brad Fitch I hope to. We believe that this is a better benchmark for how the Congress is performing as a legislature than some of the other, we’ll call it popular media tools that have been used, such as the number of days in session or the number of bills introduced or passed. This is a survey of senior congressional staff. More than half of the respondents had ten years experience or more. So, you’re really dealing with a very seasoned, very intelligent workforce, very dedicated workforce is public servants much in the way the executive branch is. But the difference is, of course, is they do have to deal with this highly partisan difficult work environment. And clearly the research is showing it’s taking a toll on many of them.

Tom Temin And we’ve been primarily talking about people who work on the committee and personal staffs of the members. What about those in the Congressional Research Service? The congressional? Budget Office. Is there a sense that the Partisanship has pretty much stayed out of those which are considered the reference points for both sides in research and data about what it is they’re doing?

Brad Fitch We didn’t survey the institutional support agencies you referenced. We focused on, as you noted, personnel, staff, committee staff and leadership staff. I will add one thing, though, in the area of institutional support, we did find a ray of good hope in the survey research in that the satisfaction levels of congressional staff with some of the more we’ll call it institutional capacity areas, H.R. professional development. It all improved in a matter of two years, and this is likely a direct result of the work of the Select Committee on Modernization and the Subcommittee on Modernization, which is now been around for a year and a half. And the members of Congress who engaged in that effort starting in 2019, did it in a completely bipartisan way. It was an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. The same is true of the new subcommittee chaired by Stephanie Bice, congresswoman from Oklahoma. And it’s a real testament that if members of Congress decide to roll up sleeves, collaborate in a bipartisan way, work constructively to solve problems, it can work. And that was really, in some respects, the positive highlight of the report, that in a matter of less than two years, staff satisfaction in all the areas related to capacity had gone up. It’s still very low, but we saw improvement in every metric.

Tom Temin Yes, because the technology basis of Congress was pretty primitive. They still published 2000-page bills that aren’t even searchable PDFs, let alone, you know, HTML. And so, I think for people coming in that might be idealistic about the nature of the work they would expect to work environment that seems 21st century and Congress is inching that way, you might say.

Brad Fitch I would say they’re going in more than inches. They’re going in yards these days. And they’ve actually made some significant progress in the digitalization of some of their work. I was just talking to a staff member just yesterday. And, you know, even the simple act of getting a co-sponsor for a bill required very much an 18-minute process that involved producing PDFs and signatures and all this stuff. And now they can all do it electronically. And she said, it takes about a minute now. So, there’s very good progress happening, especially in the House of Representatives. The professional development offerings in the House have just skyrocketed. It’s really terrific what they’re offering new staff members in the area of professional growth that research shows in the HR community should lead to more job engagement, should lead to more job retention, and that results in a better workforce for the American people, because ultimately, this is designed and all these efforts are designed to improve services that the American people take advantage of.

Tom Temin All right. I wish they’d modernize flag ordering. That would make things a lot easier because they.

Brad Fitch Are actually doing their job. And believe it or not, they actually started to move that to an electronic format. Most people don’t realize you can buy an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol. It’s a business that’s run out of each individual congressional office, and it’s now gotten a lot more efficient as a result of some of the reforms they’ve done in the last five years.

Tom Temin Well, I’ve got three of them so far. So, they’re good things to own. And just finally, I want to return to that question of the importance of civility and constructive dialog. These are not merely academic or social niceties, but they actually improve. Well, not to be dramatic, but the performance of the Republic.

Brad Fitch In the end, it all leads to compromise, which we sometimes forget our eighth-grade social studies classes and reminding us that America was founded on the grand compromise, the Sherman compromise, the idea of a bicameral legislature. We don’t live in a direct democracy or a parliament. We live in a republic. And compromise is essential to the functioning of our legislatures. And to get compromise, you have to have collaboration and civility. And this report shows that senior Democratic and Republican staff agree that’s the path to improving our national legislature.

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