Please, Don’t Let Another Congressional Staffer Go to Bed Hungry

By | July 3, 2012

An underpaid Congressional staffer huddles for warmth during a cold Washington winter.

In some corners of elite opinion working on Capital Hill means one is laboring in the political equivalent of Wal–Mart. Hill workers have their pity while toiling in a crowded ideologyshop for chump change.

Yet, just like Wal–Mart, each time an election or retirement causes a new Congressional store to open the line of applicants typically extends around the corner.

How to explain it? Don’t these serfs know they’re being exploited?

You expect this reasoning in the WaPost, but surprisingly enough, this expose was in the Washington Times. The premise is Capitol Hill staffers are grossly underpaid and as a result the nation is being run by penniless Facebook addicts who are subject to an employment revolving door of tornadic force.

The pitiful few newbies that do manage to cling to their position are utterly at the mercy of rapacious lobbyists up to no good.

I am indebted to the author of the story, Luke Rosiak, for sharing his employee turnover numbers with me for comparison purposes. Frankly, if the situation had been reversed I don’t know that I would have been so gracious. Still, Rosiak’s generosity does not prevent me from disagreeing with his conclusions.

He begins by painting a picture of ignorant amateurs: “High turnover and lack of experience in congressional offices are leaving staffs increasingly without policy and institutional knowledge…leaving a vacuum that is usually filled by lobbyists.”

As a result: “When Americans wonder why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, this could be a clue.”

Once we get past the irony that after finally identifying jobs where federal salaries are equal to or less than the private sector the WT sees fit to complain; a comparison shows the analysis is flawed. First because salary numbers leave out the excellent health insurance that Hill staffers receive and secondly, because it ignores the nature of work in a Congressional office.

Although located in august structures and surrounded by the echoes of history, Congressional offices are basically 535 mom and pop operations with the elected official serving the role of mom or pop, as the case may be. None of these offices are governed by the rules and regulations that pamper civil service employees. Officeholders are political entrepreneurs building a brand on the taxpayer dime.

Some Congressional offices are well run organizations that rival an Apple Genius Bar for motivation and expertise. Others limp along like a poorly managed Dollar store where are all the toys are from China and contain extra lead.

But regardless of how the office is managed, the jobs are an example of an efficiently functioning employment marketplace. If the salary for Congressional office jobs was too low, there would not be enough qualified applicants to fill the positions. It would be necessary to follow in the footsteps of agribusiness and hire illegal aliens. Yet that’s not happening.

If the officeholder was dissatisfied with the quality and performance of the employee the salary was attracting, he is free to increase the amount paid for the position, but that’s not happening either. Instead we have market equilibrium: plenty of well–qualified applicants at the advertised salary.

Even at the existing salaries the WT disapproves of the turnover in these jobs is better than in comparable private sector positions. According to the figures developed by the WT, in 2006 there was 24 percent turnover on Capital Hill. The Bureau of Labor statistics for the same year finds the voluntary quit rate in “professional and business services” was 33.7 percent, a figure that is almost 10 percentage points higher.

Median experience levels for Congressional offices were also higher than in the private sector. For staff assistants — mostly equivalent to receptionists and entry–level office workers — the median was 2 years and for legislative assistants it was 4 years. In the private sector the BLS figures for workers ages 20 to 24 (entry–level jobs) the median experience was 1.5 years. For workers 25 to 34, closer to the legislative assistant level, the median was 3.1 years.

Besides, when one considers a great legislative mind like Nancy Pelosi just celebrated 25 years at the Congressional trough, experience past a certain point begins to look overrated.

Many of these jobs are viewed as stepping stones to a better position. Just as no one expects to be taking orders in a drive–through the rest of their life, few Hill receptionists expect to be tracking down errant Social Security checks until they retire.

Some are promoted inside the same office, some go to better jobs in other offices, some leave for the private sector and some run for office themselves. Some even leave to become lobbyists, although that’s seen as a bad thing in the context of the article: “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.”

But again, statistics point to a much smaller “problem.” Between the years 2005 and 2011 a total of 161 staffers became registered lobbyists. That represents 5 percent of the total, which is more than the number of people who become murderers and less than the 7 percent who become alcoholics.

The ability to change jobs, in this case voluntarily, is a feature of the marketplace, not a bug.

Besides, increasing salaries for these jobs does not mean that substantive legislation will start whisking it’s way through the Capital. Taxpayers would just have an overpaid group of true believers. Elected officials aren’t looking for the next Steve Jobs, they are looking for Donald Segretti: someone who is loyal, takes orders without question and gets the job done.

Members of Congress are getting the employees they want courtesy of our tax dollars. The problem is conservatives aren’t getting the government we want because the officeholders we elect lack the courage. And salaries large enough to launch staffers into the 1 percent aren’t going to change that.

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