Congress Needs A Raise. Or, At Least, The Staff Do

By: Dokter Prax Evad | Contributing AOJ journalist

People don’t seem to like lobbyists much. Take one Gallup survey, which found lobbyists at the bottom of a list of polled professions considered by honesty and ethical standards, with just 6% of respondents rating lobbyists as honest and ethical. People also don’t seem to understand the reason lobbyists exist beyond the typically associated influence peddling. Certainly, that influence peddling occurs, but more mundanely, lobbyists fill an informational void in congressional offices.

You may have heard of the poorly-paid, overworked, 20-something year old congressional staffer, probably recently out of college. These are the people largely responsible for pushing a congresswoman’s agenda legislatively (in addition to many other tasks). They have a lot of behind-the-scenes power in drafting legislation, but not a lot of experience, generally. Why? Because the pay is utter garbage among other difficulties inherent to working on the hill. One study found that 46% of staffers would seek out a new job within the year due to a “desire to earn more money.” Further, staff assistants and legislative correspondents, the most prolific positions, have a mean pay of merely $35,000. That’s less than or comparable to what many jobs that don’t require a college degree pay, such as stock clerks, who also make a mean pay of around $35,000. Professionals spend a bit of time as staffers gaining valuable experience and connections before moving onto more lucrative pastures. This presents a problem. Some of the most important people behind drafting legislation are not the most qualified. And how could they be? They don’t have enough experience under their belts to know issues through-and-through. Furthermore, congressional offices often assign multiple legislative areas to one staffer. Staffers somehow juggle all these areas.

That somehow is where lobbyists come in. Lobbyists provide the much-needed knowledge base and perspective on how any given legislation might impact the corporation or group that lobbyist represents. This isn’t necessarily, or even typically a problem at all. Those drafting the legislation don’t want to draft that legislation such that the largest employer in their congresswoman’s district will be severely hobbled and forced to lay off jobs. However, there are certainly instances where those interests are over-represented, which is where this current system fails. Those with the funds to employ more and better-connected lobbyists are likely going to have an easier time explaining their perspective on an issue than those without the resources to do so. There’s nothing wrong with the well-financed explaining the impact of legislation. Their voice is certainly important, but so is the voice of the less well-financed. What is one to do about this? Outlaw lobbying? In addition to removing an important source of perspective in the legislative process, that would not be easily enforced at all as then one has to debate what defines a lobbyist. Even following what has previously been defined as a lobbyist, those definitions are easy to meet, or at least claim to meet and who would know otherwise? Unless significant resources were devoted to the strict enforcement of a lobbying ban, such a ban would fail spectacularly. And as I said, lobbyists fill an important information hole in the legislative process.

So, what can we do then? Here I propose something a little more unorthodox. Congressional offices should receive enough money to hire more well-versed and experienced professionals, or at the very least enough money to make them an appealing long-term career prospect to more young professionals, such that staffers are willing to stay in the office much longer and develop a deep knowledge base that can benefit the legislative process for years. This isn’t wasteful spending, it’s good policy. Private companies pay more for experienced workers. Congress should bring that to the congressional office and pay more to keep staffers in the office longer, rather than facing the near constant turnover of staffers that is currently endemic on the hill. This would all help to minimize special interest influence and ensure a most effective legislative process behind the scenes where understanding of legislation’s potential side effects needs addressing.

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