The Sunlight Foundation has slogged through two quarterly House Statement of Disbursements reports to produce a nice piece on staff turnover in the House. Endlessly interesting to think about. Go read it.
I don’t mean the following as a harsh critique — I really liked the study and, having done my share of research in the Statements of Disbursements, I have a professional respect for anyone who dares sit down with them — but I have three concerns:
1. I’m not sure I buy into the theoretical importance of turnover, per se. Here’s the SF’s theory:
Retention rates affect how well members of Congress can do their job, since they rely so much on their staff. And as any manager in the private sector knows, high turnover undermines organizational effectiveness. Hiring and training new staff takes substantial time, and institutional knowledge is frequently lost in the process.
Offices with less experienced staff and less institutional knowledge will generally be less competent. This makes it harder for members to execute their legislative priorities and makes them more likely to rely on lobbyists and special interests for guidance. It may also make it more difficult for offices to adequately serve constituent needs.
I’m skeptical of this turnover-effectiveness link. It makes sense in theory, but I’m not sure how applicable it is to the Hill, which is a strange employment market / work environment if there ever was one.
One feature of the Hill job market is that lots and lots of people who leave an office on the Hill do so in order to take a job in another Hill office. It’s probably the exception to hire from the outside for anything but the entry-level staff assistant jobs. I think it surprises a lot of people how much hill staffers jump around, especially at the lower levels. Some people seem to think that most hill staffers grew up in the district for which they work, but that’s not at all the case. It’s not uncommon for someone to have interned at one office, caught on as a staff assistant at another, and landed as an LA at a third office. My experience/intuition is that senior staffers do less of this, but it’s still common. The culture of the Hill makes it more or less normal for everyone to always be looking (or at least open) to a new job in a different office.
Now, even if the turnover is strongly driven by people moving around a lot, that’s potentially bad for the individual Member offices. But I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the study suggets. Despite co-existing like 500+ small businesses on the same campus, the individual Member offices tend to have a lot of functional and cultural overlap. And they are definitely completely intertwined professionally. Enough so that if your education LA leaves, you don’t exactly have to reinvent the wheel to hire a senior staff assistant to fill that role, whether you get him fr0m your own office or another. There’s enough commonality to the Hill (the campus, the day-to-day happenings) and the individual offices (chains of command, typical job description of the education LA) that, yes, it’s a transition, but no, it’s not a huge shakeup to an office. In fact, many policy staffers spend as much time talking to staffers from other offices as they do talking to staff from their own office.
What it comes down to, I think, is that I’m not sure the individual offices can be seen as different firms for the purposes of asking how turnover affects them. The institutional knowledge and/or experience with an individual office is not nearly as important as institutional knowledge of the Hill as a whole. Think about it this way: if I had a legislative director who had been on the Hill for five years, all of them in my office, and then he left and I replaced him with a senior policy adviser who had been on the Hill for 7 years in three different offices, that might actually be a net positive for my office on the experience and knowledge dimensions. For the Sunlight study, it’s simply more bad turnover. Same thing with our education LA. If you get someone making a lateral move who already covered education, the deadweight loss strikes me as almost nothing. It’s not a similar job in new circumstances; it’s really the same job with a new supervisor.
Again, this doesn’t damn the study at all. But the key variable I think we want to know is missing: how many people, in aggregate, are leaving the Hill and being replaced by new faces that have no Hill experience. My intuition is that it would be much more interesting to get a feel for total Hill turnover. I’d much rather see, for instance, the total number of years on the Hill for the staff of an office. Turnover might proxy that, but we really don’t know. After all, if we want to measure experience and institutional knowledge, we should measure experience and institutional knowledge, not how that knowledge and experience is moving around within the system.
2. The study cuts through the 2010 election, comparing employment data from before and after. Unfortunately, the 2010 election — in which 90+ House members were replaced by new freshmen — was an unusual event for Hill employment. Not only were there 90 offices worth of staff looking for jobs, but they were disproportionately on one side of the partisan divide. As a result, you had the following employment situation: lots of Democratic staffers in the Member offices and committees out of work, with a very tight market for Democratic Hill jobs, and lots of Republican job openings in both the offices and committees, but very few Republican staffers out of work. Result: lots of Democratic staffers leave the Hill; lots of Republican staffers get promotions to go work in a new office; and lots of Republican staffers come to the Hill for the first time.
In short: lots of turnover. In fact, perhaps — and this is just a guess — some of the highest turnover in history. Now, this doesn’t damn the story about relative turnover between offices, but it does gum things up a bit. I would guess that it has something to do with the partisan turnover differential in the study. The cascading effect of all the job openings in the new Republican offices probably churned up a lot of turnover, and almost certainly a disproportionate amount, among offices that existed both before and after the election.
3. I don’t think staff spending is a good measure of representational effectiveness. The SF study notes that higher paid staff are less likely to turnover. That seems about right. And it probably follows that a member could slow down turnover by increasing his staffers’ pay. But it doesn’t follow from this that an individual office can more effectively represent its constituents by increasing staffer pay. And that’s because offices are working on a fixed budget, the Members Representational Allowance (MRA). Any increase in money devoted to staff has to be balanced against the corresponding loss of resources for other office activities.
What else does the MRA fund besides staff? Three general categories: office expenses like office supplies and district office space leasing, travel back to the district for the Member and staff, and franked mail for constituent communications. To the degree that any individual Member is maximizing his budgetary efficiency, an increase in staff pay will generate a resource loss on this side of the ledger. And if a Member is maximizing his efficiency, then he has already struck the balance he thinks proper. And if you don’t think Member are maximizing their budgetary efficiency, well, that only raises the question of whether more money can actually solve anything. I suppose one response would be to increase the MRA for the purpose of increasing staff pay, but that’s quite a hard sell in the current budget climate (the MRA has been cut in recent years).