After months of intense effort to win election to Congress, it might seem like the hard work is done. But for many incoming members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, it’s just beginning.
As the new legislators scramble to set up their offices in Washington, they must make critical decisions about staffing that will impact their effectiveness throughout their terms. Mistakes are common and can be costly.
One of the most important pieces of advice new legislators get, and one of the hardest to follow, is “Don’t rush to hire your staff.”
Experts who advise legislators, and current and former legislators themselves, urge newcomers to hire a few core people first and to fill out their staffs gradually in the first four to six months.
One of the reasons for taking it slowly is that new legislators won’t know their committee assignments—and the policy areas for which they will need expertise—until after they are sworn in.
“We do encourage members to have a core complement hired when they are sworn in. But they need to go slow until they get their committee assignments,” said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) in Washington.
Among the key posts that should be filled early are chief of staff, scheduler, district director, someone to handle news media calls, and a legislative director or legislative assistant, said Fitch.
Though some legislative votes occur in January, the administrative side of a congressional office is much more important during the first few months, experts say.
Screen Before Hiring
Another big mistake is hiring staff without screening them adequately. The hiring officials for many representatives and senators don’t check references or take other steps to ensure that the people they hire are qualified and will be effective.
“There are no standards,” said Fitch. “People are in such a hurry, they skip over some hiring practices.”
“They don’t have the staff to do what’s done in the private sector. They are anxious to get rolling,” said Meredith Persily Lamel, executive in residence in the management department at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington.
“One of the things that is so amazing is that people on the Hill do not even call references,” said Persily Lamel. “Ask where they worked. Call the references they give.”
One of the best questions to ask, she said, is “Would you hire this person again?”
The dangers of not vetting staff properly were illustrated in December 2012, when news reports indicated that an undocumented immigrant and registered sex offender had been working as an unpaid intern in the office of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. The Peruvian native was taken into custody by immigration officials. Menendez was quoted in news reports as saying that background checks would not have revealed the intern’s issues because he was a minor.
There are excellent resources available to new legislators, including the CMF website.
Another pitfall for new representatives and senators is feeling pressured to hire people with political connections.
“Never hire someone you can’t fire,” says Persily Lamel. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to retain someone because of their connections, she said. Any termination is disruptive. “Over time, a bad hire is going to cost you more in lost productivity.”
Before being sworn in, legislators should decide “what kind of Member [of Congress] they want to be,” said Persily Lamel. “Think about your priorities and what you want to accomplish for your district. Then, think about how you want to apply your resources.”
As a freshman, “You’re going to have so little discretionary spending,” said Persily Lamel.
Written Job Descriptions
It’s important to have a written job description for each position; templates are readily available. Legislators are urged to resist the temptation to change these job descriptions to suit applicants.
“There are certain jobs that need to be done,” said Persily Lamel. “Don’t design the jobs around the people.” One of the dangers of upgrading titles and duties is that “you wind up having a top-heavy organization” and not enough people to handle routine duties, such as constituent service, she noted.
Staff from a retiring legislator can be retained, but there are factors to consider. Those with many years of government service can have valuable institutional knowledge, but their salaries tend to be higher than those of new hires, and that can strain a budget.
Even the best efforts to staff up can be affected by events. As of mid-December 2012, the uncertain status of efforts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff threatened to affect the staffing budgets of House and Senate members. Congressional budgets, like almost every other part of the federal government, were on the line as across-the-board cuts were pending under the “sequestration” process, scheduled to take effect in January 2013.
The CMF is working with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to make workplace flexibility more common on Capitol Hill by offering specialized training to congressional staff members during 2013.
Research by SHRM and CMF shows that workplace flexibility can boost productivity “even in the fast-paced House and Senate,” Fitch said.