Custodiansof American Democracy: July/August 2006

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The strength of the legislature often lies behind the scenes with the sometimes unnoticed but hard-working staff.

By Karl T. Kurtz

When he taught at NCSL's Legislative Staff Management Institute, University of Minnesota professor John Bryson often would say, "State legislative staff are the custodians of a central institution of American democracy." By custodian he meant "guardian" or "curator."

But there is another way in which the more mundane meaning of custodian as "janitor" could apply to legislative staff: Their work is seldom noticed unless they mess up or fail to do something. As one anonymous staffer puts it, legislative staff "are the hidden engine that make the legislature work."

Perhaps because of this invisibility, the work of legislative staff receives very little attention from scholars of the legislative process or the news media. There are only two book-length studies of staff, one of which is more than 30 years old. Those books focus on the role of nonpartisan staff. Virtually nothing has been written about partisan staff and their work.

We set out to address this oversight by conducting a national survey of legislative staff to find out who they are, what they do and how they perceive the legislative process. In the survey we were particularly interested in determining if there are differences between the work and attitudes of nonpartisan and partisan staff.

Who are They?
 

For the most part, legislative staff are a mature lot--45 percent of all respondents are aged 50 to 64 and one-third are 35 to 49. When we split out partisan from nonpartisan staff we find that partisan staff are substantially younger. A third of the partisan staff is in the 20 to 34 age group compared to only 12 percent of the nonpartisan staff. But not all of the partisan staff are Gen X or Y: The remaining two-thirds are split equally among the two older age groups.

As would be expected from the age statistics, partisan staff have substantially less tenure in the legislature than do nonpartisan staff. Almost exactly half of them have worked for the legislature for less than 10 years. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds of the nonpartisan staff have been in legislative service for 10 years or more.

Legislative staff are generally a well-educated group. Ninety-three percent of nonpartisan and 89 percent of partisan have college or postgraduate degrees. But more than two-thirds of the nonpartisan staff have postgraduate degrees compared to one-third of partisan staff. This reflects the fact that many of the fields dominated by nonpartisan staff such as bill drafting, program evaluation and policy analysis usually require advanced degrees.

Among those who have postgraduate degrees, 37 percent have law degrees (one respondent calls the legislative staff "the best law firm in my state"), 34 percent have advanced degrees in the social sciences and 14 percent in economics or business.

What do they Do?
 

A question about how staff spend their time in 11 different categories shows that most staff spend a little bit of time on lots of different things. Eighty-five percent say they spend at least some portion of their time doing research and reference work, and 70 percent devote time to constituent service and policy or fiscal analysis. The only areas in which the majority of the respondents say that they do not work are chamber administration or bill processing and program evaluation or auditing.

Similarly, relatively few staff say that they devote more than three-quarters of their time to any single activity. Management and supervision of staff and policy or fiscal analysis are the only areas in which at least 10 percent of the respondents say that they specialize (spend more than three-quarters of their time).

The most significant difference between partisan and nonpartisan staff on time allocations is that partisan staff spend more time on constituent service and providing strategic or political advice. In commenting on the work of nonpartisan staff, one staffer described a common understanding of staff roles in states that have significant numbers of both kinds of staff: "Nonpartisan staff in our legislature do more of the bill drafting, analysis and research, and less of the providing advice, constituent services and media work. Sometimes partisan staff will call on us with particularly involved constituent inquiries."

Three out of five nonpartisan staff say that providing strategic or political advice is not part of their job, which is not surprising. More surprising, because it implies a more expansive role for nonpartisan staff than the normal stereotype, is that one-third of the nonpartisan staff say that they devote up to a quarter of their time to strategic advice to legislators. Nonetheless, at least one partisan staffer thinks the nonpartisan staff should be more assertive: "They're not always good at pointing out potential pitfalls or opposition to an idea that a legislator has. Even though they are nonpartisan, they should speak up on potential problems with legislation."

By far the most important sources of information for all staff are their own state's statutes and constitution, which score "very important." Other important sources are the Internet, the personal expertise of staff, nonpartisan staff, executive agencies and NCSL, all of which received average scores of "important." Partisan staff, the media, other states' statutes and lobbyists ranked as "somewhat important" sources.

The only significant differences between nonpartisan and partisan staff on information sources are that partisan staff view information provided by lobbyists and themselves as more important than do nonpartisan staff.

Perceptions of Their Work

 The performance of nonpartisan staff is viewed very positively by both nonpartisan and partisan staff. Nonpartisan staff are regarded as either "very effective" or "effective" in each of 10 different staff functions. In general, nonpartisan staff think more highly of their own work than do partisan staff. Nonpartisan staff rate themselves as "very effective" at bill drafting, policy or fiscal analysis, general research, committee staffing and administrative work, whereas partisan staff see their nonpartisan colleagues as "very effective" only in bill drafting.

"The members tend to respect and rely on their nonpartisan staff regardless of which party is in control," says one partisan respondent. Another comments, "Nonpartisan staff balance responsibility to serve both majority and minority party legislators. Counsel and research staff have strong reputations for quality work and maintaining confidentiality." A third respondent says, "Our nonpartisan staff is stellar in getting things done for senators and constituents alike."

But in at least a few states, nonpartisan staff are either in eclipse or heading there. In several large population states in the East and Midwest, a common comment from survey respondents is, "[My state] has very few nonpartisan staff." Another comment, perhaps a bit harsh but no less telling, is, "…As some staff have become timid, they have allowed the partisan staff to take over their role. Some are shifting from real policy folks to state employees waiting out retirement."

We also asked about the performance of partisan staff. In states where there are significant numbers of partisan staff, their work is viewed positively. The average score on almost all of their work is "effective." They are regarded as being most effective at providing strategic and political advice, constituent service and public information or media relations, which is not surprising since those are areas in which they specialize. A nonpartisan staffer says, "Partisan staff can have a great deal of influence and are instrumental in developing agendas and strategies. This type of help can't be duplicated by nonpartisan staff."

In the reverse of the previous question about the performance of nonpartisan staff, partisan staff think more highly of their own work than do nonpartisan staff. One partisan staffer says, "We drive everything." Another says, "We are a self-motivated group, well-educated and creative."

The differences between partisan staff and nonpartisan in the scores for the performance of partisan staff are particularly large in areas in which nonpartisan staff traditionally work--committee staffing, policy or fiscal analysis, general research or reference and bill drafting. In these areas the nonpartisan staff think much less highly of the work of partisan staff.

There is also recognition that partisan staffers have tough jobs and that there are differences between majority and minority party staff. "Partisan staff are known by all to have the hardest job in the legislature," says a nonpartisan staffer. "The job of partisan staff is grueling and there is a very high turnover rate…" says another. A number of comments about the advantages of being majority partisan staff are perhaps summed up by this lament: "Underpaid and kicked to the curb, minority staff get the shaft constantly…. [Their] performance is lost amongst the effort needed for majority legislation to pass."

And finally, there are also complaints about partisan staff. "They are too partisan and get in the way of good policy sometimes." "Abilities and effectiveness vary widely." "The turnover is too high, they tend to come in with new leaders and leave when the leaders leave." "They write the cheesiest press releases I have ever seen."

All in all, there are not a lot of surprises in this survey. For the most part it confirms the view that partisan and nonpartisan staff work together in complementary roles. "Partisan staff are an integral part of our staffing team," says a nonpartisan staffer. And the two types of staff generally respect each other. The following comment was made about nonpartisan staff, but it could apply equally to both types: Staff are "the unsung workhorses of the place. We are the ones who put up the circus tent and take it down after they go home."

We expected the finding that partisan staff are younger, have worked for the institution for less time and are somewhat less educated. But the data on the demographics of staff, especially nonpartisan staff, are intriguing in another way. They confirm that concerns about upcoming generational change are well-founded. One staffer comments, "Many in critical positions have more than 25 years with the legislature and are eligible for or approaching retirement. Given the inexperience of legislators and partisan staff, some day the effectiveness of the legislative branch will become weaker." Many nonpartisan staff directors around the country are aware of this impending generational change, but few legislatures have actually put a succession process in place.

In the course of casual conversations with staff, one often hears an odd mixture of humility and pride about what they do. The humility comes with their behind the scenes roles, but there is also another element to it. They often joke about how they hate that moment on an airplane or in a taxi cab when their seatmate or the driver asks them what they do--or, even worse, when they have to explain it to their kids. This is an embarrassment that is engendered both by the difficulty of explaining their work to those who are unfamiliar with it and dread of the public cynicism that often greets any discussion of the work of a legislature.

But the humility and occasional embarrassment is balanced by an incredible commitment to the legislative institution that most legislative staff demonstrate. At the root of that drive and commitment, whether they realize it or not, is the notion that they are indeed custodians of an institution that is at the heart of American democracy.

Who They Are and What We Asked

In May 2006, we sent an online survey to 4,695 state legislative staff--mostly folks who have used NCSL services. We received responses from 1,522 (34 percent). These respondents are a sample of the estimated 35,000 staff who work for the 50 state legislatures. Because NCSL is home to 10 legislative staff sections--in effect professional societies for specialized groups of legislative staff--and the names on our mailing list come heavily from those sections, there is reason for us to believe that our lists represent a wide cross-section of staff, not only those who draft bills or do research but also those who manage and administer the institution.

It is important, however, to note that eight of the 10 staff sections focus primarily on nonpartisan legislative staff functions. Only the leadership staff and public information sections involve significant numbers of partisan staff. As a result, there is a bias in our mailing lists: nonpartisan staff are overrepresented. Seventy-two percent of the respondents say that they are nonpartisan, whereas the 2003 NCSL census of all staff shows that the numbers of partisan and nonpartisan staff are nearly equal--52 percent are nonpartisan and 48 percent partisan. To be perfectly accurate, this survey should be characterized as a study of staff who use NCSL's services.

Most of the questions in the survey were asked of all respondents, but one question about the performance of partisan staff was not asked of those (27 percent of all respondents) who said that their state does not have a significant number of partisan staff.

Karl T. Kurtz, a veteran NCSL staffer, has been working for, studying and writing about American legislatures for more than 35 years.