By Brian Weberg
Strong staff, strong legislatures?
We’ve been hearing it for several years now at NCSL.
State legislative staff are concerned—especially those who work in the nonpartisan service centers that produce bill drafts, policy and committee support, fiscal notes, budget analyses, information systems, security, personnel systems and the other essentials that help make legislatures functional and informed.
After an era of institution building that featured staff expansion, specialization and professionalization, today’s legislative staff are experiencing a workplace offering declining rewards, expanding workloads and a less overtly appreciative group of employers—their legislator bosses. An NCSL survey surfaced these issues in 2012 as reported by Karl Kurtz and Tim Rice in State Legislatures Magazine.
Now here comes a poignant story in the Washington Post that reflects some of the staff angst we’ve been picking up.
Yes, the Post is talking about the U.S. Congress, an institution with more staff than any other legislative body in the world and it may not be easy to feel sorry or concerned if it sheds a few FTEs from its 25,000 or so employees.
Still, the Post article by political scientists Anthony Madonna and Ian Ostrander highlights some issues, trends and worries that look pretty familiar and that might be worth pondering by state legislatures where staff are working harder than ever, often for a diminished package of incentives and opportunity. Here’s a summary of some of the authors’ findings and observations:
“Staff cuts immediately limit Congress’s capacity to influence policy. …Why would Congress cannibalize its own legislative and creative capacity? … the reason may be twofold: First, most of the public doesn’t know how much the legislative staff does. And second, the members routinely run against 'Washington,' which includes the bureaucrats and employees who enable Congress to do its work."
“Congress isn’t just cutting resources. Its members are redistributing them away from lawmaking and out toward the care and feeding of voters. ... This means fewer resources for [staff] who are likely to work on policy than on constituent relations.”
“So who’s left making policy? Lobbyists and interest groups, who are happy to fill in for free.”
State legislatures can’t begin to compare to Congress when it comes to staff resources, but maybe that’s the point.
If these trends are worrisome for congressional independence and functionality, then they probably should be of concern to state legislatures where far fewer staff serve institutions with ever-expanding policy reach and responsibility.
Brian Weberg is director, legislative studies in NCSL's State Services Division.