LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD:
A bill becomes a law only through collaboration, communication, and teamwork.
Members of Congress are pulled in many directions. Members must be Members, which means they attend hearings, participate in legislation via debate and voting, and communicate with their constituents. Members, who want to remain Members, must be perpetual candidates, which means raising funds, working with their campaign team, involving themselves with national, state, and local officials within their political party, and engaging organized special interests that provide funds, endorsements, and resources. Members are increasingly Ambassadors to a sprawling government, meaning their offices are “embassies” representing the interests of their constituents to federal officials and guiding their constituents through the federal labyrinth to obtain government benefits, regulatory relief, and due process.
No one person can handle all these roles. That is why Congressional Staff exist.
Members during the first seventy years under the U.S. Constitution, performed their diverse duties themselves. The Federal government was small and legislative sessions were short.
Just before the American Civil War, the size, scope, and complexity of the Federal Government had grown to a point where full-time staff began supporting Members. The first staff were attached to major committees. Many of these were clerical staff to take notes and help draft legislation. Even during the busy period of Post-Civil War Reconstruction and Westward expansion, such as 1867, the Congress only passed 30 bills and 41 resolutions a year.
By the end of the 19th Century Congress had only 146 staff members: 37 Senate personal staff, 39 Senate committee staff, and 62 House committee staff (37 of whom only worked during congressional sessions). In 1893, the House approved the first personal staff for its Members.
The Populist and Progressive movements ignited government regulation of America’s burgeoning economy. New federal agencies meant dramatic increases in spending and the need for vigorous Congressional oversight of Executive Branch activities.
Except for limiting government during the Administration of President Calvin Coolidge, the role, scope, and size of the federal activities grew rapidly and never stopped. Congress introduced, considered, and passed more and more laws facilitating this expansion. By the early 1970s over 26,000 legislative bills and resolutions were being introduced during each two-year Congress.
Congressional staff expanded to support Members. Members, torn by their multiple responsibilities, deferred increasingly to their staffs.
Today, approximately 14,000 employees work on House and Senate leadership, committee, and personal staffs.
Each Congress begins, on its first day of existence, with establishing its governing rules. This includes setting personal staff levels and authorizing a standard amount funding each office to pay that staff.
The personal staff of a Senator or Representative are people who take the lead in handling the multiple roles of each Member. Staff conduct “Case work” to help constituents receive the services, benefits, and due process they deserve. Receptionists welcome visitors and help them access special tours and events through the Nation’s Capital. Administrative and technical staff manage office operations and information resources. District staff provide similar services within the Members’ home area, including attending countless meetings with local officials and interest groups.
The heart of a Congressional staff is the legislative team. These individuals spend sometimes 100 hours a week carrying out the original purpose of representative government. A mix of young enthusiastic newcomers, fresh from college, work closely with seasoned professionals who may spend their entire careers working in Congress.
Ideally, a Senator’s or Member’s legislative team become the alter-ego of those they serve. They anticipate the Member’s needs. They become intimately knowledgeable of the issues most important to the Member and their constituents. As a Member gains seniority, the legislative team will grow with the Member and help them become a recognized leader on selected policies.
Legislative staff become the Member’s intellectual annex. They attend briefings, cultivate relationships with policy experts, and build their own collaborative networks among other Member staffs, lobbyists, and the media. They become invaluable in alerting the Member to opportunities and threats relating to the Member’s core interests and his or her constituents.
Legislative staff will collaborate with their network, including associates within Congressional leadership and committees, to manage the legislative process for their Member. At the basic level, legislative staff will “triage” pending legislation into its level of importance to the Member. This may include recommendations on how to vote on procedural motions and amendments, taking input from their Party’s leadership.
Legislation that is more important to a Member may require the legislative staff to draft amendments and speeches. The best staffers are ghostwriters, whose words so closely reflect the Member’s thinking and speaking, few will ever know where the staffers’ words end and the Members’ begin.
Ultimately, an issue requires the Member to take the initiative. The legislative staff will develop a strategy, which may include writing and introducing new legislation. At this level the legislative staff becomes a campaign team, mobilizing support from other Members, garnering endorsements and commitments from lobbyists and interest groups, engaging the media, and orchestrating hearings and media events to move the legislation forward.
It is no wonder that the most effective among the legislative staffers in Congress are highly sought after by outside interests and lobby groups. Such “super stars” can earn far more “on the outside” and some make the leap to the private sector.
Therefore, it is truly inspirational when a legislative staffer completes their career in Congress after many years of serving the Legislative Branch. They are the true “institutionalists” who maintain the culture of professionalism and pass their knowledge and commitment to the next generation.
Scot Faulkner advises corporations and governments on how to save billions of dollars by achieving dramatic and sustainable cost reductions while improving operational and service excellence. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. He started his Congressional career as an intern for Rep. Don Young (R-AK), then served on the legislative staffs of Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-MN) and Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH). Faulkner later served on the White House Staff and as an Executive Branch Appointee.