Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) walks through Statuary Hall as he arrives for a bipartisan meeting on May 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Groups Call on Congress: Fund Your Staff

in Sludge
on May 18, 2021

With lobbying at near-record highs in Washington D.C., good government groups are calling for Congress to restore its legislative capacity by better funding its own operations, slowing staff turnover and enhancing diversity. 

This week, 30 organizations and 11 congressional experts sent a bipartisan letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the new chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, and committee ranking member Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, proposing a return to the higher funding levels that the House had in 2010. 

Led by the progressive organization Demand Progress and the conservative group Lincoln Network, the letter draws attention to the decreased funding support for the House’s work: members’ office budgets are down 20% when adjusted for inflation, and committee funding is down by over 21%. 

The initiative has the support of top House Democrats including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, who in a letter sent last month endorsed a 20% increase in congressional funding to boost staff pay.

Increasing congressional budgets would let offices provide appropriate compensation for expert staff, the groups’ letter says, stemming a crisis brought on by unsustainably low funding support. 

Congressional watchdogs have flagged that legislative expertise is increasingly being outsourced to lobbyists. At least $3.53 billion was spent on lobbying in 2020 according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), just below the recent high-water mark set in 2019. The biggest players lobbying on the Hill range from corporate trade associations to Beltway-behemoth federal contractors to the newly-arrived tech giants. Each of them has made the calculation, year after year: their returns in things like policies and contracts justify their high levels of lobbying spending. 

Skimming the list of top lobbying spenders last year, after trade groups like the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there’s Facebook and Amazon, which are facing increased scrutiny from lawmakers of their business practices around monopoly and privacy. Facebook’s lobbying has more than doubled over the past five years, while Amazon’s lobbying is up over two-thirds over that time, according to information from CRP. 

A bit down, after the groups representing the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, there’s Comcast and cable industry group NCTA, lobbying the federal government on issues like net neutrality and municipal broadband. They’re followed by the American Chemistry Council, lobbying on topics including environmental cleanup rules; Pfizer, lobbying on issues like IP protections and drug pricing regulations; top defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which received $72.3 billion from the Department of Defense last year; and Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, which in fiscal year 2020 brought in over $21.7 billion from the Pentagon.

Each of these industries employs hundreds of federal lobbyists with expertise in specific issues, helping advance their clients’ agendas by, for example, slow-walking community broadband or spreading out plastic pollution cleanup costs. Over the past decade, academic research has shown how the revolving door from government official to industry lobbyist works to facilitate special access to lawmakers’ offices for business interests. But even initial tallies in the billions of dollars annually under-counts the true spending by special interests on influencing legislation and policy. A 2013 estimate by American University professor James Thurber put the lobbying industry’s income at $9 billion per year, due to lobbying-adjacent work performed by individuals with job titles like government affairs or communications strategist. Analyses have shown that a deep-pocketed “top tier” of about 100 organizations account for nearly a third of all lobbying expenditures.

Congress spends less than 1% of the federal discretionary budget on the Legislative branch, according to a December 2020 report by the Demand Progress Education Fund and Public Citizen, and the rate of funding for policy work has not kept pace with overall government spending. Almost all new funding has gone to building maintenance and Capitol Police.

An updated analysis last month by the First Branch Forecast—an email newsletter authored primarily by Demand Progress policy director Daniel Schuman—shows that overall committee funding in the House has shrunk considerably from past Congresses, with the Intelligence Committee seeing the greatest dollar increase and the Budget Committee seeing the biggest decrease in their shares of the smaller pie.

“Turning the clock back to 2010 for funding levels for personal and committee staff would be a huge step forward to allow Congress to address its staff retention and diversity problem,” said Schuman. “We desperately need a Congress that addresses the problems facing our country, and redressing staff resources will improve Congressional capacity to get that job done.”

A study released last September by the New America Foundation, “Congressional Brain Drain,” gathered data including the 2017 and 2019 Congressional Capacity Surveys to give a comprehensive picture of legislative capacity and congressional staffers’ responsibilities facing this onslaught of lobbying. The typical Hill staffer is a Millennial who works on between two and six issues on a daily basis, with one quarter working on more than seven issues. The average staffer works more than 50 hours a week—closer to 60 hours—staying with the institution on average for just three years. A legislative assistant in 2019 earned $56,741, according to the Congressional Research Service, with a constituent services rep earning $48,308 and with some of the lowest-paid staff earning under $40,000. This limited capacity puts staffers at a near-constant disadvantage with well-resourced outside lobbyists.  

Nearly half of the 40-45% of congressional staffers planning to move to the private sector plan to become lobbyists, study authors Alexander C. Furnas and Timothy M. LaPira found, where they can earn three times as much or more, taking valuable institutional knowledge with them.

It’s not just a cocktail of over-work and under-pay causing burnout among congressional staff—last month, interviews by USA TODAY reported that staffers are continuing to feel the aftereffects of the Jan. 6 Capitol Building riots. The violence of the pro-Trump rioters was felt immediately by many Black staff members at their workplace; staff of color have recently testified there’s a lack of upward mobility and shortcomings of support on Capitol Hill. The government information service LegiStorm found again this month that staff of color get paid less on average than their white colleagues. Data from 2018 showed that white staffers averaged $3,500 more than Black counterparts, $2,000 more than Latino counterparts, and $900 more than their Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts.

A decade ago, Lorelei Kelly, a congressional expert now at the Beeck Center at Georgetown University, blasted the decline in legislative capacity, describing it as “Gingrich’s lobotomy.” In January 1995, the new Republican House leadership (think “Contract with America”) gutted Congress’ professional staff and legislative support staff by a third, killed off the Office of Technology Assessment, and centralized power in the Speaker’s office away from committee structures, among other steps.

In another measure to slow the revolving door, government ethics experts have suggested a lifetime lobbying ban on members of Congress and a five-year ban on their senior staffers.

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