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Capital on the Hill | Insight

As congressional staffers vent about poor wages and working conditions, it’s worth considering what happens when public servants are poorly compensated.

In the midst of a golden age for anonymous confessional instagram accounts, it’s surprising that one highlighting the experiences of government workers hasn’t exploded into the public eye sooner.

As the saying goes, though, better late than never. An account with the handle “dear_white_staffers,” cataloguing often-salacious reports of abusive work environments, shoddy benefits, and low pay from anonymous congressional staffers has made some waves in recent days.

The upshot of the account has been the swift emergence of a movement among congressional staffers to form a labor union. Almost the entirety of the Democratic congressional caucus in the House and the Senate has moved quickly to endorse the move, including several members of Congress who have been “exposed” by the anonymous account. Given that official approval for such a body would require congressional assent, the Senate filibuster poses—as usual—a significant obstacle.

This might all seem like inside baseball, but there are significant implications for the functioning and well-being of American democracy. To frame it in simple terms, if we want the best and the brightest minds to stay in public service—presumably to the benefit of the public—rather than taking their skills elsewhere, they need to be paid well and enjoy quality benefits.

As it stands, entry-level congressional staffers are paid about the national average for entry level work. The problem is that compared to most entry-level work, securing employment on Capitol Hill is probably about as competitive as breaking into investment banking. In other words, entry level congressional staffers who have spent their young adulthoods carefully building the skillsets, resumes, and connections that would allow them to ascend to the Hill are paid less and enjoy fewer benefits than their peers who build different but comparable resumes for other competitive careers.

Combine this with living in an expensive metro area, and it becomes surpassingly difficult for staffers to make their way. Many live paycheck to paycheck or even take out loans to meet living expenses. Working many hours for insufficient pay is doubtless discouraging, and a key reason that staffers exit public service.

What happens next is disturbing but hardly shocking. Connections to legislators and senior-level staff are highly valuable to lobbyists, so—not unlike members of Congress who retire or lose re-election themselves—ex-staffers frequently find their way through the “revolving door” into the lobbying industry. All of the know-how, the skills built and ideas studied, often come to work in the service of the very interests that undermine democratic health and flourishing.

Any functioning legislature in a democracy must be able to reward skilled and faithful service. If it fails to do so, all we’re going to see is the very skills that in aggregate could bolster democratic health turned against it. In the quest for a healthier American democracy, one small but crucial improvement would be to compensate congressional staffers better.

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