As the freshman members who will be part of the 116th Congress orient to Capitol Hill this month, there are things that have changed about the job, and things that have not. (For more on the current requirements, the Congressional Management Foundation has published a new “Job Description for a Member of Congress.”)
In the “What’s Changed?” department, the resources that help members do their jobs have simultaneously gotten better and worse.
Total support staff in the institution has been cut significantly, with some estimates at 20 percent fewer staffers. The Congressional Research Service, committee staff and technical resources (such as the Office of Technology Assessment) have been reduced. A CMF survey of senior congressional staff suggests there is a great need to improve Congress’ access to nonpartisan policy experts, technological infrastructure, and general capacity to perform its functions.
Members will also find fewer perks than their predecessors enjoyed. The public and the media still report on Capitol Hill like it was the 1970s, suggesting lavish trips, fancy gifts and opulent meals are the norm. One former chief of staff from that era described a Christmastime ritual of lobbyists pushing carts through congressional office buildings, passing out top-shelf liquor to senior staff office by office. “I used to fill up my liquor cabinet for a year from those visits,” he said.
Now, if a lobbyist takes a staff assistant to lunch or dinner, it could mean five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
In the “What Hasn’t Changed?” department, the size of personal office staffs has remained the same since 1979 (which is ensconced by law at 18 full-time staffers and four part-time staff in the House).