Thy Rod and Thy Staff

February 16, 2012

Well then, congressional staff.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago to do a general post on the topic, but…where to begin? Let’s do this in three chunks: a legislative branch overview, a basic rundown of the staff in a Representative’s office, and a look at the most relevant recent trend: leadership staff growth. I’ll just highlight some key stuff, this is far too big of a topic for a blog post.

Legislative Branch Overview

There’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000+ people working in the legislative branch of the federal government, which seems like a lot until you realize that 30k is roughly just a bit more than 1% of  the about 2.75 million non-military employees in the executive branch. Anyway, those legislative branch staffers can be divided into five general categories:

Member Personal Staff — staffers in the House or Senate employed by individual Representatives and Senators. Each Representative’s office can hire up to 18 permanent staffers and 4 others (i.e. part-time, interns, etc.), constrained by the financial limits of their Member’s Representational allowance (usually referred to as the MRA; a lump sum of money appropriated annually in the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act and  given to each office to pay for staff, office expenses, travel, and mail. The MRA is regulated by law, chamber rules, and Admin committee regulations). Senate offices are not limited in the number of staff, but are constrained by the financial limits of the SOPOEA (similar to the MRA). There are roughly 7,500 personal staff in the House, and about 4,500 personal staff in the Senate.

Committee Staff — staffers in the House or Senate employed by one of the standing committees.  There are about 1,500 committee staffers in the House and about 1,200 in the Senate. Like personal staff, funding for committee staff is provided in the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act and authorized by the chambers under resolutions in the jurisdiction of the administration committees. Committee staffs vary in size, constrained by chamber rules and their budgetary resources. While there is no hard and fast rule in the House or Senate, the norm in the modern era has been to give the minority control of 1/3 of the committee staff; all vouchers, however, are signed by the committee chair.

Leadership Staff — staffers in the House or Senate employed by the chamber majority or minority. This includes the formal leadership structure — Speaker, majority and minority leaders, whips — as well as the party policy apparatuses  (i.e. the caucuses and conferences) and some other positions (like cloakroom staff). As discussed in trends below, the overall number, and the funding for, leadership staff has increased significantly in the past few decades.

Administrative Staff — staff that work for the House or Senate itself, such as the Clerk’s Office, the Parliamentarian’s Office, the Sergeant-At-Arms Office, the CAO of the House or the Secretary of the Senate’s Office, and so forth. Roughly 900 staffers in the House and 350 staffers in the Senate.

Support Agency Staff — staff that work for the legislative branch external to the House and Senate proper. This includes the Library of Congress and Congressional Research Service, the Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Police, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Printing Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Office of Compliance. Roughly 15,000 employees.

Staffing in a Representative’s Office

Within the general boundaries of their budget constraint, as well as law and chamber rules — which can be shorthanded to something like “follow the civil rights act in hiring, don’t hire your brother, staff must work on official business only, and absolutely no campaign work on official time” —  Members can organize their staff resources as they see fit. Therefore, how Members allocate their 18 permanent staff slots varies considerably. It really is like 435 small businesses.

The first thing to get over is the nomenclature. There are literally dozens of names for the eight basic jobs in a personal office. I think of those jobs as: Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, Press Secretary, Legislative Aide/Assistant, Caseworker, District Director, Scheduler, and Staff Assistant. But you will hear tons of variations on these (Senior Legislative Assistant, Deputy Chief of Staff, Communications Director, etc.) as well as other jobs that are distinct but not universally employed by every office (Legislative Correspondent, Counsel, Systems Administrator, Field Representative, Office Manager, etc.). Here we’ll stick to the basic eight, since those are the most important to understand, anyway.

One key variable is how many staffers will be in DC vs. how many staffers will be in the district. In general, district staffers deal with casework (i.e. citizens who have a problem or issue interacting with the executive branch), grants, outreach, and sometimes the logistics of Member and DC staff travel while in the district. So the typical district office will have a District Director, some number of caseworkers, and probably a staff assistant answering the phones, dealing with mail, and other administrative tasks.

In the DC office, the point person will almost always be called the Chief of Staff, although there are still some old-school people who refer to them as administrative assistants, which is maddening because that doesn’t sound like the top job in an office these days. Under the chief of staff you are going to have three general groups of people: the legislative employees, which is typically a legislative director and some number of legislative assistants; the press shop, which in the House is often just one person, the Press Secretary; and the administrative people, which will include the scheduler and all of the legislative correspondents and staff assistants. These aren’t even close to hermetically sealed-off teams; House offices typically run much more like all-hands-on-deck situations. A brief description of the responsibilities:

Chief of Staff: overall management of the office; often the point of contact between other staff and the Member; strategic planning and coordination of district and Washington activities; policy adviser to Member; point person for budget and hiring.

Legislative Director: policy adviser on top Member legislative priorities; management of legislative assistants; point person on floor developments and action.

Legislative Aide/Assistant: track legislation in particular policy areas; develop legislative initiatives in those areas; follow relevant committee action; write floor or committee speeches; prep Member for committee hearings or other relevant meetings; meet with district and lobbying groups in policy area.

Staff Assistants / Legislative Correspondents: work with Cos, LD, and LAs on duties as assigned; often includes tracking legislation, drafting responses to constituents, prepping materials for meetings; answering phones; reception duty in office, etc.

Scheduler: Maintain Member’s personal schedule; schedules staff meetings, briefings; coordinates with Press Secretary to plan media appearances.

Press Secretary: handle all aspects of press relations; formal spokesperson duties; speech writing; communications strategizing; arranging media contacts for Member, etc.

Again, the most important thing to remember is that these jobs are hardily airtight compartments. The work of  Member’s office — responding to casework  and policy input from constituents, monitoring legislative developments, and formulating policy positions and original legislation — are often complete team efforts. It’s not unusual to see the Chief of Staff physically assembling a briefing book when time is short, or the press secretary taking a lobbying meeting in a pinch.


The most interesting trend in congressional staffing is the relative growth of leadership staff compared to personal and, in particular, committee staff. Below is a chart of House leadership and House Committee staffing levels, from 1982 to 2010. The dotted line is committee staff (note the large drop in 1995, when committee staff was cut across the board by 1/3), and the solid line is core leadership staff (Speaker, Maj. and Min. Leaders, and whips); the left Y-axis plots committee levels, the right leadership levels.

During this time period, total personal office staff increased about 6%. Committee staff decreased roughly 18%. And core leadership staff increased by 233%. (These changes are also reflected in the relative real funding of the three groups).

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the House leadership exists in a qualitatively different resource environment than it did a generation ago. Take the Speaker’s Office, for example.  In 1982, the Speaker’s Office employed just 14 people. By 2010, the staff had more than quadrupled to 59 people. Here’s a plot of the growth:

As shown, the growth of the Speaker’s Office staff has not been steady. Instead, it has seen two significant increases. The first is the well-known increase under Speaker Gingrich in 1995, in which the staff of the Speaker’s Office went from 10 to 28 and then peaked at 38 in 1998. The second is a similar increase in 2007 under Speaker Pelosi. After staffing levels were more or less constant or saw a slight decline under Speaker Hastert, they nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008, going from 36 to 64 staffers. When Speaker O’Neil left office in the mid-80’s, he almost certainly couldn’t have fathomed taking on the leadership role that future leaders like Gingrich and Pelosi would undertake; he simply did not have the resources to do it.

I also have a forthcoming academic chapter about leadership staff trends. I will post an ungated version soon.


7 Responses to Thy Rod and Thy Staff

  1. Josh Huder on February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Quick point about committee staff: the 1970 LRA stipulated the minority gets at least 1/3rd of committee funds and staff. Republicans negotiated this into the reform package when the aligned with Democrats to weaken chairmans’ strangle hold on committee resources and staff.

    • Matt on February 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      True, but it didn’t hold. It’s been a huge source of controversy since the ’46 Act. And it was a huge bone of contention when the GOP took over in ’95 — they had been complaining about it for years leading up to that, and to his credit, Rep. Thomas enforced it when they took over, rather than vindictively punishing the Dems. A huge step forward for professionalization.


      • Josh Huder on February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm

        I wasn’t aware that they nullified it twice. I knew it was cut out immediately following 1970 but thought it stuck after its 1974 reintroduction. In any case, it’s interesting the norm stuck around despite nullifying the actual rule (twice).

        • Matt on February 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm

          The norm didn’t really stick — the GOP complained bitterly about it in the late 80s and 90s, as the Dems tended not to give the full 1/3 to the minority. And that’s why Thomas’ actions in ’95 were so commendable; no one would have flinched if he simply continued on the practice of short-changing the minority. It’s actually one of the things I point to first when people asking about the important positive effects of the ’95-era revolution — the increase in the professionalization of the House was a great achievement, both by the GOP in ’95 and by the scared Dems in the wake of the scandals early in the decade.

          The norm is pretty well-entrenched now — almost all committees are on the 2/3-1/3 split, but there is still some squabbling around the edges, like how much of the “shared staff” budget gets taken out of the 2/3 and how much out of the 1/3. Stuff like that.


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