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Analysis

Staff Minimum Pay Invests in Congress’s Oversight Capacity

(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

On May 6, 2022, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives has set the minimum annual pay for their congressional staff at $45,000, effective September 1. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has long supported higher wages for congressional staff to expand capacity for Congress to fulfill its oversight mission. The established minimum pay is an important step toward retaining more experienced Hill staff, who have the necessary experience to effectively conduct oversight investigations.

In 2021, the House staff turnover rate was the highest it has been since at least 2001. Congress’s efficacy is suffering because it doesn’t have enough staff to meet the growing size of the federal government. The high turnover rate also results in fewer senior-level staff who have knowledge of the various tools and procedures needed to facilitate vigorous oversight.

Oversight staff must be compensated fairly to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge regarding best oversight practices. Newer, less experienced staff take time to learn proper oversight techniques and to get up to speed on issues before they can conduct rigorous oversight, so maintaining a number of experienced staff is in Congress’s best interests.

In addition to offering a fair and reasonable salary to staffers, Congress should ensure existing oversight staff receive continuing education and training. Having more trained oversight staff contributes to a more effective, accountable federal government. In 2021, the Congressional Oversight Initiative (COI) at POGO trained 652 congressional staff on how to conduct oversight investigations. About 40% of congressional committee staffers have attended at least one of our monthly training sessions, and 10% of attendees were senior-level staffers.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Currently, there are 9,842 staffers working in the U.S. House of Representatives. When discussing staff retention, it’s important to highlight that only 24.2% of senior-level staff are people of color. Senior-level staff tend to stay at Congress for longer and typically have more oversight experience than junior-level staff. African American House staffers are underrepresented in top roles (7%) on the Hill, including chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and communications directors, which historically are the highest paid staffers. Similarly, Latino and Latina House staffers in senior roles make up 8.7% of staff, and Asian American House staffers account for 5.5%. Increasing diversity on the Hill and retaining staffers of color who know how to handle oversight investigations will further strengthen Congress’s oversight capabilities.

Livable wages for congressional staff will not only help retain experienced staffers but will also allow for more diverse representation in staff positions.

To improve diversity on Capitol Hill, COI is partnering with a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to create a pilot program that will train and certify students on how to conduct oversight and investigations. Launching fall 2022, the program will give students firsthand knowledge of the oversight process and equip them with the tools and techniques they need to successfully conduct oversight in member or committee offices.

Conclusion

The House’s minimum base pay for staffers is a big step toward ensuring more staff with oversight experience remain on the Hill. Livable wages for congressional staff will not only help retain experienced staffers but will also allow for more diverse representation in junior- and senior-level staff positions. However, increasing staff pay is only the first step. Congress must invest in training so existing staff can better conduct oversight to ensure the federal government is effectively and efficiently working for all Americans.