Congressional Staffers Aren't Underpaid

In some corners of elite opinion, working on Capitol Hill means one is laboring in the political equivalent of Wal–Mart. Hill workers have their pity while toiling in a crowded ideology shop for chump change.

Yet, just like Wal–Mart, each time an election or retirement causes a new congressional store to open, the line of applicants typically extends around the corner.

How do you explain it? Don’t these serfs know they’re being exploited?

You expect this reasoning in the Washington Post, but surprisingly enough, this expose was in the Washington Times. The premise is that Capitol Hill staffers are grossly underpaid and, as a result, the nation is being run by penniless Facebook addicts who are subject to an employment revolving door.

The pitiful few newbies that do manage to cling to their position are utterly at the mercy of rapacious lobbyists up to no good.

I am indebted to the author of the story, Luke Rosiak, for sharing his employee turnover numbers with me for comparison purposes. Frankly, if the situation had been reversed, I don’t know that I would have been so gracious. Still, Rosiak’s generosity does not prevent me from disagreeing with his conclusions.

He begins by painting a picture of ignorant amateurs: “High turnover and lack of experience in congressional offices are leaving staffs increasingly without policy and institutional knowledge … leaving a vacuum that is usually filled by lobbyists.”

As a result: “When Americans wonder why Congress can’t seem to get anything done, this could be a clue.”

Once we get past the irony that after finally identifying jobs where federal salaries are equal to or less than the private sector the Washington Times sees fit to complain, a comparison shows the analysis is flawed.

First a reality check: although located in august structures and surrounded by the echoes of history, congressional offices are basically 535 mom and pop operations with the elected official serving the role of mom or pop, as the case may be. None of these offices are governed by the rules and regulations that pamper civil service employees. Officeholders are political entrepreneurs building a brand on the taxpayer dime.

Some congressional offices are well-run organizations that rival an Apple Genius Bar for motivation and expertise. Others limp along like a poorly managed dollar store where are all the toys are from China and contain extra lead.

But regardless of how the office is managed, the jobs are an example of an efficiently functioning employment marketplace. If the salaries for congressional office jobs were too low, there would not be enough qualified applicants to fill the positions. It would be necessary to follow in the footsteps of agribusiness and hire illegal aliens. Yet that’s not happening.

If the officeholder is dissatisfied with the quality and performance of the employee the salary is attracting, he is free to increase the amount paid for the position, but that’s not happening either. Instead, we have market equilibrium: plenty of well–qualified applicants at the advertised salary.

Even at the existing salaries, the turnover in these jobs is better than in comparable private sector positions. According to the figures developed by the Washington Times, in 2006 there was 24 percent turnover on Capitol Hill. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for the same year finds the voluntary quit rate in “professional and business services” was 33.7 percent, a figure that is almost 10 percentage points higher.

Median experience levels for congressional offices were also higher than in the private sector. For staff assistants — mostly equivalent to receptionists and entry–level office workers — the median was two years and for legislative assistants it was four years. In the private sector, the BLS figures for workers ages 20 to 24 (entry–level jobs) showed that the median experience was 1.5 years. For workers 25 to 34, closer to the legislative assistant level, the median was 3.1 years.

Besides, when one considers that a great legislative mind like Nancy Pelosi just celebrated 25 years at the congressional trough, experience past a certain point begins to look overrated.

Many of these jobs are viewed as stepping stones to a better position. Just as no one expects to be taking orders in a drive-through for the rest of his life, few Hill receptionists expect to be tracking down errant Social Security checks until they retire. Some are promoted inside the same office, some go to better jobs in other offices, some leave for the private sector, and some run for office themselves. Some even leave to become lobbyists, although that’s seen as a bad thing in the context of the article: “It means that young workers have proximity to enormous power while surviving on a meager budget — dual forces that come together to push congressional staffers through the ‘revolving door’ to highly paid K Street lobbyists.” But again, statistics point to a much smaller “problem.” Between the years 2005 and 2011, a total of 161 staffers became registered lobbyists. That represents 5 percent of the total, which is less than the 7 percent of American workers who become alcoholics. The ability to change jobs, in this case voluntarily, is a feature of the marketplace, not a bug.

Besides, increasing salaries for these jobs does not mean that substantive legislation will start whisking its way through the Capitol. Taxpayers would just have an overpaid group of true believers. Elected officials aren’t looking for the next Steve Jobs, they are looking for Donald Segretti: someone who is loyal, takes orders without question, and gets the job done.

Members of Congress are getting the employees they want courtesy of our tax dollars. The problem is conservatives aren’t getting the government we want because the officeholders we elect lack the courage. And salaries large enough to launch staffers into the 1 percent aren’t going to change that.