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People think Congress is increasing its staff. So Congress might as well actually do it.

 Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee hear testimony from Commandant of the US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford Jr., July 9, 2015.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee hear testimony from Commandant of the US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford Jr., July 9, 2015.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Over the past several months, I've repeatedly made the case that there's a simple solution that would dramatically reduce the unwelcome influence the growing numbers of corporate lobbyists have in Washington: Beef up congressional staff so that Congress can think for itself, rather than having to rely on lobbyists for policy expertise.

Instead of relying on (too few) mid-20-somethings who are expected to somehow be experts on a dozen complicated issues as of yesterday, congressional offices should start hiring enough real policy professionals who won't need to rely so much on lobbyists to explain policy basics for them. Note: The entire House and Senate combined spend less on staff ($2 billion a year) than corporations spend on lobbying ($2.6 billion a year).

As I've talked and written about this, I keep getting the same response from folks both in and around Congress: "Of course we should do this. It makes total sense. But it will never happen. No member of Congress will support more money for Congress. It would be political suicide."

Yes, I understand that congressional approval ratings have been in the low single digits for a while, and most people probably think all money spent to fund Congress is wasted.

But now, thanks to political scientists Anthony Madonna and Ian Ostrander, I also know what the public thinks about congressional staff: There are too many of them. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. If the public doesn't like Congress, by extension they shouldn't think much of congressional staff, either.

People think Congress has increased its staff over the past two decades. It hasn't.

Madonna and Ostrander asked a couple of questions on a survey. One was, "Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: There are too many staffers or assistants in Congress?" About a third said they didn't know. But of those who ventured an opinion:

  • 92 percent said they thought there are too many staffers or assistants in Congress.
  • 8 percent disagreed that Congress was overstaffed.

Madonna and Ostrander also asked respondents how many staffers they thought members of Congress had. The median guess was 10 — a third less than the House average of 15. So not only do most people think Congress has too many staffers, but they also think too many is fewer than the limited number Congress has.

Another survey question asked, "Over the last 20 years, do you think the size of congressional staff has increased, decreased, or stayed about the same?" About a quarter said they didn't know. Among those who ventured an opinion, here's how it breaks down:

  • 85 percent thought staffing levels had increased.
  • 2 percent thought staffing levels had decreased.
  • 13 percent thought it had stayed the same.

In other words, 85 percent of people are mistaken.

Overall, congressional staffing levels are about the same as they were 20 years ago — slightly down in the House, slightly up in the Senate, according to CRS reports. More specifically:

  • In the House, total staffing levels fell from 9,891 to 9,175 between 1994 and 2014, down 7 percent.
  • In the Senate they went from 5,476 to 5,758 between 1994 and 2014, up 5 percent.

But even standing still is really falling behind. Over the past 20 years, the amount of lobbying activity in Washington has at least doubled. Constituent demands have exploded. Public policy and the world have become more complex.

The rough stability in overall staffing, however, masks a few notable changes between 1994 and 2014:

  • Committee staffers in the House are way down — from 1,947 to 1,262, a 35 percent decline.
  • Senate staffers have migrated from DC to the states to do more constituent work. Between 1994 and 2014, the percentage of in-state Senate staff went from 35 percent to 43 percent.
  • There is, however, one notable growth area in staffing. In the House, the number of staffers in the leadership office has increased from 112 to 214 — an 89 percent increase.

It's the salaries, too

It's not just the number of staffers; it's also the experience of the staff. Most staffers stick around only a few years and move on. Sure, it's an exciting thing to do for a few years. But it's also a demanding job that pays poorly. The excitement only lasts so long, especially when you can make more money elsewhere.

Consider what's happened to salaries between 2009 and 2013, based on CRS reports. Congress is paying less and less, in constant dollars.

In the House:

  • Median pay for House "counsel" positions declined from $74,925 to $59,555, down 20 percent.
  • Median pay for House "legislative director" positions declined from $93,013 to $81,177, down 13 percent.
  • Median pay for House "legislative assistant" positions declined from $55,643 to $48,622, down 13 percent.

In the Senate:

  • Median pay for Senate "counsel" positions declined from $98,063 to $84,424, down 14 percent.
  • Median pay for Senate "legislative director" positions declined from $148,288 to $131,912, down 11 percent.
  • Median pay for Senate "legislative assistant" positions declined from $72,859 to $66,606 down 9 percent.

Understandably, to folks back home in many states and districts these can seem like big numbers. But they need keep in mind that Washington, DC, is an expensive place to live — by one analysis more expensive than San Francisco or New York City. Even the $131,912 median for a Senate legislative director is not exceptional money, especially when first-year law firm associates in town are earning $160,000. Lobbyists with legislative director experience, it goes without saying, earn considerably more.

The case for optimism

I'd like to interpret the public's guesses about the trends in staff size optimistically: that any reasonable respondent would think, "Well, of course Congress would have increased its staff over the past two decades, given the expanding demands." Therefore, it makes sense that 85 percent of those venturing a guess would have guessed that Congress must have increased its staff. Not to do so would be crazy.

But I fear the main takeaway (Congress has too many staffers) is the consequence of the anti-government rhetoric that politicians have been inflicting on themselves for decades — running against Washington, only to find that all this government bashing undermines their ability to get anything done when they get to Washington.

In closing, I present two tweets from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) from earlier this year.

On May 20, he tweeted:

A day later, on May 21:

Despite the face-plant irony in this juxtaposition, perhaps there's a pony somewhere in this pile of manure. Perhaps at some level, Boehner and others around him really do get that staffers matter. After all, whoever is managing Boehner's Twitter account is tweeting publicly about it.

And for a final piece of optimistic spin, consider this: Boehner and his fellow Republicans (as well as many Democrats) keep talking about how they are cutting staff. And yet, despite all their brags about internal belt tightening, this messaging has apparently not penetrated the public consciousness.

So maybe the real takeaway is that it doesn't matter what Congress actually does. People think Congress is increasing its staff. So Congress might as well actually do it.