Members of Congress must deal with long workweeks, a shortage of experienced staff, crushing schedules, overwhelming volumes of constituent communications, voter approval ratings hovering around 20%, and, for many, regularly spending the night in their offices when in Washington.
In addition to their Constitutional duties, they must also manage an office in the Nation’s Capital and one or more offices in their home districts.
That’s where the Congressional Management Foundation comes in. It is a nonpartisan Washington nonprofit that offers training, education and consultative services for Members and staff to help them run their offices more effectively. With 10 new Senators and 101 new Representatives in Washington, the foundation is understandably busy this year.
Bradford Fitch is the foundation’s president and CEO. Fitch said his organization works with both House and Senate offices but finds that the need for its services is more acute in the House.
Convincing new Members of Congress to set priorities for their office is often a challenge for the foundation’s staff, Fitch said.
“They’re politicians. They want to say yes to everybody.”
Fitch said the foundation often must point out to new Members that if they don’t make these decisions, a junior member of their staff will likely be forced to do it for them. Fitch said he presents them with a likely scenario such a staffer will face.
“They’re going to get piles of mail. One pile is going to be education, another pile is going to be health care. Which should they answer first?”
Messages by the thousands
“Piles,” in this case is a metaphor. House Members don’t receive correspondence on paper these days. Some 80% of messages come in as email and other electronic media. For security purposes, any incoming postal mail is opened and scanned at an off-site facility and transmitted to the office electronically. However, the ease of sending messages via email or social media has increased exponentially the amount of communications coming into House and Senate offices.
“Most people don’t realize the millions of messages” Congressional offices receive, Fitch said, noting one House office received 162,000 messages from constituents last year.
Shrinking staff, growing demands
Congressional staffing has dropped 15% since the 1980s, according to Fitch, while the national population has increased by 50%. The office that received those 162,000 messages had a staff of three to manage and respond to them. Members also find it hard to retain experienced help. The average age of a legislative assistant or policy adviser in the House is 27, and the average tenure for one is 1.7 years, less than one Congressional term.
And those long hours and packed schedules? Fitch says Members average 15 meetings a day, in addition to their presence in the House chamber for debates and votes. In Washington, they work an average of 70 hours per week, and that number could climb as high as 80 hours per week once this year’s Congressional session hits stride. When Members return home, they spend nearly as much time, 59 hours per week, conducting official business.
That doesn’t count fundraising and other political activity, which, by law, cannot be conducted using Congressional resources, including the Member’s office and staff. However, such activities are part of political life and place demands on an elected official’s time.
Members will tell you that fundraising eats up a large part of their schedule, but most overestimate the time they spend raising cash. Fitch said only those in competitive races and members holding leadership positions spend a significant amount of time fundraising.
“That’s only 10% of the Congress. Ninety percent of the Congress is just not spending the time raising money,” Fitch said.
So, why do they complain so much about it?
“It’s because they hate doing it,” he said, noting that people tend to overestimate the time they spend on tasks they don’t enjoy.
“It’s the opposite of ‘Time flies when you’re having fun,’” said Fitch. “I call it the ‘yardwork syndrome.’”