Half of senior staffers in Congress are so fed up that they may quit

When it comes to job satisfaction, members of Congress aren’t the only ones considering calling it quits.

Only about one in five senior aides on Capitol Hill believe that Congress is “functioning as a democratic legislature should,” and about the same margin believe that it is “an effective forum for debate” on key issues.

Given those assessments by the people who live and breathe these issues, this particularly glum finding should not come as a surprise: Almost half of senior congressional aides are considering leaving the Hill because of “heated rhetoric from the other party.”

These are just some of the findings from an investigation by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve both lawmaker effectiveness and constituent engagement. Situated seven blocks away from the Capitol in Eastern Market, the foundation conducts seminars for staff and offers research to outside groups trying to figure out the byzantine ways of the House and Senate.

Over the past seven years, the foundation has conducted three very deep dives into the lives of senior staff in Congress, understanding that these unelected officials wield tremendous clout and that their positive outlook — or lack thereof — can deeply affect the health of the institution.

The introduction to the latest “State of the Congress” report begins with a bleak three-word summation of things:

“Congress is broken.”

The reports should not be considered scientifically conducted polls with margins of error and such. Rather, they are surveys that try to explore what these top staff think of their jobs and the overall environment on Capitol Hill. In addition, these reports measure the skill set senior staff members have and the resources they need to make it a better, more functional workplace.

Some circumstances have gotten much better for staff members. Starting in 2019, a select committee tasked with “modernizing” Congress instituted changes that gave aides more access to policy expertise and offered more professional human resources.

Now turned into an official subcommittee, the panel is even focusing on the little things that might matter a great deal, such as opening “staff collaboration space” where aides from different offices — maybe even different sides of the partisan aisle — can work together comfortably, outside their cramped offices.

Perhaps more importantly, thanks to a bipartisan agreement to pour more funds into staff salaries, the budget for all 435 offices in the House went from a little more than $550 million in the middle of last decade to $810 million last year.

And, while members of Congress refuse to take the politically risky step of giving themselves a pay hike — keeping their pay at $174,000, adopted in 2009 — they freed up limits a couple of years ago on senior staff so that they can make more money than lawmakers.

From 2019 through 2023, the average staffer on Capitol Hill saw a 33 percent raise, up to almost $74,000 per year, according to an analysis by Legistorm. Moreover, the very top aides, who receive the most attractive offers for lobbying and consulting gigs in the private sector, have seen large, well-deserved bumps in pay.

Chiefs of staff in the Senate now average $194,000, almost 12 percent more than their bosses take home, and many more north of $200,000. The average House chief now makes $178,000. A Senate legislative director in early 2019 might have made $140,000, but now that same top policy staffer averages almost $160,000.

In 2017, CMF’s investigative report found that overall funding had been so crippled that it heavily contributed to a quick revolving door on Capitol Hill. At that time, not a single staff position in the House or Senate, or on the dozens of legislative committees, had a median tenure of more than four years.

One legislative director to a House freshman aptly described the situation back then. “My boss wants issue experts on most issues, and unfortunately with our budget that is just impossible. He is a frosh Member and was definitely shocked by the youth and lack of resources for staff upon entering Congress,” the legislative director told CMF.

Now, congressional aides have noticed the changes, obviously welcoming higher paychecks but also the additional resources their offices have. From 2022 to 2023, the foundation found a 20 percent jump in senior aides saying they were “very satisfied” to have “access to high-quality, nonpartisan policy expertise.”

And Legistorm, which tracks staff turnover, found the beginnings of what might become a more experienced staff. Retention rates inched up 4 percent last year, but still, that was the third-worst rate of turnover this century.

What’s driving this new bout of staff departures is the overall environment on Capitol Hill. That includes pandemic fallout, ranging from partisan battles over mask mandates to the long closure of the buildings to the public. It also accounts for the ongoing toxicity since the January 2021 attack on the Capitol. These factors have added to an institution that was already pretty partisan.

Lawmakers themselves are incredibly fed up with the institution. Next month, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) will resign his seat, the seventh member of the House to quit midterm for the private sector, a historically unusual amount.

Slightly more senior Democratic staff members said they were considering leaving because of the GOP’s “heated rhetoric” than did Republican aides when considering Democratic rhetoric. But almost 6 in 10 senior Republican staffers said they were thinking about leaving their jobs because of the actions of “my party.”

Most congressional aides have gone to college and studied public policy or political science, and maybe have an advanced degree in law or some key issue area. They largely come to Washington to try to shape things toward their party’s ideological vision of things.

But now, too often, newer members of Congress show up without much concern about policy and instead focus on their communications staff and getting attention on social media and cable news.

A House Republican deputy chief of staff, granted anonymity by CMF’s staff, gave a harsh assessment of those political performance lawmakers and their ability to cause dysfunction.

“Perhaps courses on the constitutional role of Congress would help enlighten them on how representation is intended to work, and we could govern properly,” the House GOP aide said.

Threats of violence have now become a regular backdrop to the work of senior staff. Less than one in five express being “very satisfied” that lawmakers and aides “feel safe doing their jobs,” with a bit more saying they are somewhat satisfied.

GOP aides said they feel safer, but not by much. And aides from both parties find threats to be an almost regular part of their job.

Four in 10 senior aides — an identical amount in each party — reported that “direct insulting or threatening messages” occur frequently or very frequently while doing their jobs.

“The physical and psychological toll of this place cannot be understated. We are in danger as a nation,” the top Democratic aide to a House committee told the foundation’s staff.

The gridlock of this 118th Congress, with Republicans in the House majority and Democrats running the Senate, has been well noted and it is on track to set modern records for a lack of productivity.

But the visceral feelings senior staff are expressing about their workplace go beyond what types of laws are getting passed, or not passed, into something more concerning.

Their collective ire also goes toward the representatives and senators themselves, who have amped up their bombast so much that it makes it harder for aides to secure the goodwill needed to do their jobs effectively. Almost half of senior aides strongly agreed that the tone taken by lawmakers “inhibits the ability of staffers to collaborate across party lines.”

With those viewpoints, it’s clear that more resources for policy expertise and a 33 percent salary boost don’t inspire senior advisers to want to stay on the job. Not when they can go to K Street and make more money, or go work at issue-oriented nonprofits to scratch their policy itch without the amount of anxiety that comes with their current jobs.

Ultimately, the CMF report’s authors found that voters themselves have to change what they value in lawmakers so that more serious, sober-minded members of Congress will take charge — and encourage their best staffers to stick around and help make that change.

“The nation can ill afford to lose them,” they wrote.

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