A Good Office Can Breed Congressional Success

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Monday, August 6, 2007
If you pay attention to the news or watch C-SPAN, you've no doubt got a pretty good idea of what members of Congress do. They work as legislators, serve on committees, negotiate policy with the White House, keep tabs on executive-branch agencies, argue for local concerns in Washington, and help constituents caught in the federal bureaucracy. 

What you won't have noticed, though, is one of their most important but least visible jobs: running their offices. 

This seems too petty to mention, right? Why should it matter whether a politician knows how to sort through software options, budget for stationery, or write a formal staff evaluation? 

In truth, though, how a member sets up his or her office says a great deal about what he or she intends to accomplish on Capitol Hill. Moreover, a well-run office can amplify a member's natural abilities, while a poorly run office only hampers his or her ambitions. 

This is because the nature of Congress itself has changed in two fundamental ways over the past few decades. 

It used to be that a member's staff would be filled with political types — campaign staffers who had helped him get elected, precinct workers, county party chairs; in effect, a job on Capitol Hill or in a district office was a form of patronage. These days, however, the work of a congressman has become so demanding in so many different ways — understanding complex policy dilemmas, using technology, knowing the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy — that he or she needs knowledgeable and skillful people in staff positions. Without them, it's impossible to do an effective job. 

Just as important, the trend over the past three decades on Capitol Hill has been toward a decentralized power structure that leaves responsibility for individual members' success much more directly in their own hands. As the Congressional Management Foundation wrote recently in its management guide for new members of Congress, "Whereas years ago power bases, or fiefdoms, could be bestowed from above, now they must be won through individual effort and savvy." 

No member of Congress truly acts alone, however; he or she needs the support of a competent and well-trained staff to be successful. 

This is why, though it doesn't hold a candle to the rest of the federal government, Capitol Hill contains a surprisingly large bureaucracy — with some 15,000 personal and committee staff. Each of the 435 House members' individual offices averages 15 staff members, with a payroll of about $1.3 million; each of the 100 Senate offices averages 35 staffers, with a payroll ranging from $2.7 million to $4.3 million, depending on the population of the state in question. 

The jobs range from receptionist — the first person a constituent, lobbyist or fellow member of Congress typically encounters — to the case workers who handle problems for individual constituents, to the legislative aides responsible for mastering the arcana of federal policy, to specialists in information technology, public relations specialists, speechwriters, correspondents responsible for answering the hundreds or thousands of letters and emails a member gets each week, and, of course, an overall administrator. 

In structuring these operations, a member has an astounding number of decisions to make. Massive amounts of information — about federal policy, the state of the world, district events, constituents' lives and concerns, requests for speeches, demands by the party leadership — flow through a congressional office every day; so how does that information get boiled down, written up, and communicated? Who makes the complicated scheduling decisions about who a member should meet with and what meetings the member should attend? What will the information technology system — the member's website, connections to congressional networks, a correspondence management system, PDAs and Blackberrys for staffers — consist of? How will you budget for salaries, technology, stationery, furniture, and so on? 

In some ways, though, the most difficult decisions don't have to do with the day-to-day running of the office, but with how to express political priorities in the way the office is set up. 

Members of Congress have great freedom to define themselves as politicians and as representatives. Some members, either because their position is politically precarious or because their interests lie in that direction, decide to focus on constituent service and maintaining close ties to the home district; inevitably, they will opt to spend more on case workers and on well-staffed district offices. 

Other members want to focus on specific legislative priorities in Washington, so while they will maintain district offices — every House member and Senator has them — they'll use their limited resources to buttress their ability to shape and affect policy. 

Of course, being responsive to constituent needs at home and legislating in Washington run parallel; most members of Congress will tell you that their legislative concerns are shaped by what they hear back home from their constituents. Still, looking carefully at how members of Congress choose to run their operations can tell you a lot about their priorities, how they will approach their time in office, and how likely they are to succeed at it. 

With all the expertise and specialization required in jobs across the country today, I sometimes think that members of Congress are among the few generalists left. They must be legislators, representatives, advocates, educators, public officials, and politicians. Now you can add to that list, they have to be pretty accomplished office managers, too. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)