At the time this article was published
Professor Alan Rosenthal was Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics,
Rutgers University, New Jersey. This was a revised version of an address given
in Boston on July 25,1984 to the Research and Substantive Committee Staff
Section of the National Conference on State Legislatures.
I have been observing legislatures,
legislators, and legislative staff since 1966, the start of the so-called
"legislative reform" movement. Professional staffing existed before
1966, but the years from about 1966 to 1975 provided the great impetus for the
staffing of state legislatures. By the end of the 1970s the staff capacity of
legislatures in many, if not most states, had been significantly enhanced.
Since that period of development, growth
itself has become an issue. In states like California people are now claiming
there is too much staff. As a result of Proposition 24 in California, they are
not only talking about it, they are firing every third person! The influence of
staff is another issue. A former legislator has made the analogy between
professional staff and the Spielberg movie Gremlins. Staff, like gremlins,
start out as cute little things but wind up as monsters. That is an interesting
observation, and perhaps not too far off the mark.
I have a number of other observations about
the development of staffing in American state legislatures. These can be
grouped in functional terms, in professional terms, and in institutional terms.
In generalizing along these lines, I still recognize that each and every state
is different, and staffing patterns will differ. The major distinction is
between larger and smaller states. I appreciate distinctions and differences,
even though I will blur over them in generalizing.
In Functional Terms
Staff has come to serve a variety of
clients, particularly in the larger states. There is staff for individual
members, for committees, for party caucuses, and for leaders. The tendency has
been for staff support to become dispersed. Democratization has been taking
place within legislatures, and staff, like power, has been dispersed. The
distribution of staff resources has, in fact, helped distribute power more
broadly within the legislature. As legislators acquire staff, they also acquire
information – and information is power or pretty near to it. The trend in
legislatures has been to disperse staff resources and to disperse power. It is
a chicken and egg situation. I do not know which came first, but I do know that
they are inextricably interwoven.
Until recently the principal beneficiaries
of staff have been the standing committees. Staff made it possible for the
legislature, through its standing committee system, to develop expertise and
play a more specialized role than otherwise would have been the case. In the
last twenty years a very noteworthy development has been the rise of committees
as workhorses of the legislature. Twenty or even ten years ago, committees were
not nearly as developed nor did they play the kind of role they do today. I do
not think committees could have carved out this role without staff support.
This is true in fiscal as well as in
substantive areas. Committees have been important, staffs have been important,
and specialized networks of committee members, staff members, agency officials,
and representatives of groups have come into being. Furthermore, the work that
committees do during the interim, either as standing committees or as special
committees of a legislative council, is really a function of having staff
Staff has also made a significant
contribution to legislative performance in making policy and appropriating
funds. It is, at least in part, responsible for the strengthening of the
legislature vis-à-vis the executive and for the changed nature of legislative
participation in the entire process.
Without staff, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to imagine the legislature initiating very many major policies.
Without staff, the legislative role had still been one of decision-making. The
legislature decided; it could say "yea" or it could say "nay".
But today the legislature can truly participate in formulating and shaping
policy as well as deciding on policy. I see this in my own state, New Jersey,
where twenty years ago the legislature basically voted yes or no on legislation
prepared by the executive. Now, it really gets involved.
In the appropriations and budget area, in
particular, staff has had a significant impact. It may be that legislatures
only affect budgets at the margins (most budgets, in fact, are only affected at
the margins), but the margins are important and legislatures make a difference
here. Fiscal staff matters as to what legislatures can do with budgets at the
I was talking recently to the chairman of
the Appropriations and Revenue Committee in the Kentucky House of
Representatives. Kentucky is not a strong legislative state. It has
traditionally been dominated by a politically powerful governor. The chairman
told me that in the last round it was the legislature, through its
appropriations and revenue committee, that actually formulated the budget. That
could not have been done without staff.
The ability of legislatures to do their own
revenue estimates, make their own projections, and come up with a figure that
can challenge the governor's gives them a tremendous advantage. To estimate
revenue is to be able to decide how much to spend. If legislatures have their
own estimates, they possess a useful political tool; they can decide to spend
more or less (and they normally decide on more) than the executive branch.
Even where individual legislators are not
heavily engaged in an activity, (as in the area of legislative oversight by
means of performance auditing or program evaluation), staff has made a
significant contribution. It may not have a profound effect on life in the
legislature, but it has had an effect on the environment and on the process. In
some places, like Virginia, it has had a major effect. In any case, it usually
has affected executive departments and agencies and how they go about their
Just as staff has contributed to
policymaking in major areas, it has also been partly responsible for the
proliferation of bills being introduced and enacted in legislatures today.
Staff is necessary for basic research and bill drafting; staff also promotes
legislation. This is probably truer of partisan, caucus, and individual staffs
than of central or non partisan staffs. Nonetheless, I think the proliferation
of legislation can be attributed to the availability of staff resources to
draft and research bills. Bills would be proposed anyway, because that is the
nature of the legislative environment and the legislative beast. But staff
makes it possible for legislators to do more of what they would do anyway
create, introduce, enact. Lawmaking is in the legislator's blood and, like some
marvel of modern medicine, staff gets that blood to circulate faster.
With legislative turnover substantial,
legislative tenure on the decline, and members shifting from one house to the
other and from one committee to the next, continuity is a real problem. Staff
has come to provide much of the continuity and serve as the memory in the
A few years ago, a colleague and I did a
study of education policy as it was being treated by state legislatures. We
found that although there had been a generation of legislators involved in
education policy, that generation was turning over. Not staff, however. Staff
had, for the most part, managed to hang on. It had much more continuity in the
area of education policy; and that continuity had been very important. Staff,
does provide continuity, particularly the central research staffs and the
legislative council directors, who constitute the early generation of staff
directors. These people have been around for quite some time and when they leave,
they cannot be replaced.
Even partisan staff and caucus staff are
becoming institutionalized in some places. People are making staffing a career,
for years if not a lifetime. Even with some individuals leaving, the staff is
the place where the legislative memory now seems to be reposing. I do not think
that is all for the good, but that is the way it is.
In Professional Terms
This is the subject that is probably most
important to the staffer and probably least important to me. Nevertheless,
there are a number of issues worth raising.
Central service agency staffs have become
more bureaucratized in recent years as evidenced by structural changes, the
codification of personnel policies, and formalized recruitment procedures.
Bureaucratization has resulted in diminished collegiality and problems of
morale. Many staffers feel constrained by merit systems, salary structures,
supervisory relationships, regulations and administrative codes. On one hand,
they see the informality of the legislative process; on the other, they see the
increasing formality of their own office. The challenge may be to combine the
two: informality along with the bureaucratization necessary for any large-scale
or even medium size effort, especially one of a public nature.
The entry-level position of a legislative
staffer, whether in a non partisan service agency or on a partisan staff, is
very appealing and promises to remain so. The position offers individuals
interesting work, considerable responsibility, some influence, and even competitive
pay. I have students who enroll in a one-year program at the Eagleton Institute
of Politics and come out with M.A.s. In my opinion, they cannot get a better
job than working for a state legislature. It is the best place to learn, and it
is a manageable environment. I cannot see any beginning job in terms of
responsibility, challenge, and interest that compares with being on a
legislative staff. Legislative staffers are involved in politics, they are
involved in public policy, and yet they have a professional position with some
security attached to it.
Promotional opportunities for staffers
increase with time, but not beyond some point. Even with organizational
modifications, the administrative structure of a staff agency is bound to be
flat. Thus the opportunities to advance in terms of status and supervisory
responsibilities are limited.
Several years ago I was visiting with the
Florida Legislature, and spoke to the Speaker of the House. He was a
"management type," who thought staffers working in the Florida
Legislature should spend no more than two years there. By then they would have
learned all there, was to learn. I was appalled and took issue with the Speaker
saying, I did not think if one were in the Florida Legislature for twenty years
one could possibly learn all there was to learn. On most jobs, you do not learn
all there is to learn in two years or even four years. The job changes, and it
changes even more so in the legislature.
Because relationships are constantly
changing, challenges always exist. If a new, chairman takes over a committee,
the relationship between chairman and staffer has to be built again. Building a
relationship takes time. Today, even more time has to be spent building
relationships because legislators are particularly peripatetic. Any staffer is
continuously challenged by having to deal with new and different legislators.
That kind of learning never ends.
It is wise, of course, for legislative
staffers to develop an area of expertise. As one becomes familiar with the
players and processes as well as with the subject area, one acquires
considerable influence. I have seen this happen with former students and other
staffers, who over the course of years have acquired influence in specific
subject areas. It does not take long for a diligent professional to become one
of a few influential people on a particular subject in the state.
The really tough thing to come by as a
legislative staffer is status. Influence can be developed; achievement and
satisfaction can be derived. But on a legislative staff status does not come
easily Not enough administrative positions exist to satisfy status needs.
There are also frustrations. There is the
frustration of having to remain anonymous, at least to the public, whatever
one's reputation within the narrow circle of decision makers. There is also the
frustration of having to work for legislators, for they are difficult people to
work for. They are demanding, and after they demand something they do not
always pay attention to what they get. No matter what you do, it is an ordeal
just to get their attention. Working for legislators can be wearying indeed.
The challenge now and for the immediate
future is in the development of legislative staffing as a career. Recent
efforts by staff agencies in various states and by the National Conference of
State Legislatures have been pretty effective along these lines. It would be
useful if the NCSL conducted a study of staffing as a career. Some people have
suggested that there be a professional journal to which staff members could
contribute. Recently, NCSL established a clearinghouse in Denver, which keeps
listings of available staff jobs in the states. More remains to be done.
In Institutional Terms
It is necessary now for staff to build up
their identification with the legislature in which they serve rather than with
the area in which they specialize – whether that area is program evaluation,
education policy, health policy, or whatever. In my opinion, specialization may
already have gone too far, and it may still be going further. There is a need,
which is already recognized in some agencies, to rotate people. Thus, after
spending three or four years in one subject area, staffers would move on to
another. That way, they would not develop quite as strong attachments to
specialities and would be available to form stronger attachments to the
The dispersion of staff has been occurring
recently, with the movement toward decentralization and the fragmentation of
central staff agencies probably irreversible. This reflects the politicization
of the legislature. It seems silly to say that the legislature is becoming
politicized. Well, it's becoming more politicized. The focus in many
legislatures today is more on electoral politics than it has ever been.
Campaigning and elections, raising funds for elections, using issues for
electoral purposes all are coming to play a more prominent role. At the same
time, legislators are becoming self-centered, individualistic, interested in
their own careers and naturally in their re-election.
At the same time, a very interesting
phenomenon in state legislatures is the growth in partisan staffing. Recently,
I completed a study of forty-four states and found that nearly one-third had
ten to twenty staffers for each legislative party caucus. Those are good-sized
staffs. A number of the other states had five to nine staffers for each party
caucus. So, partisanship is increasing and party staffs are increasing. There
is an increase, too, in partisan issues and issues being used for partisan
electoral purposes. A number of states also provide staff for individual
members. What has been happening in the states is what I call the
"congressionalization" of staff. This is partly a product of
legislative reform, but mostly a product of the times.
Lately, there have been assaults on
legislative councils in Louisiana and Oklahoma, where the councils were broken
up or divided between the two houses. The council has also been under fire in
Arkansas. Legislators want their own staffs for their own purposes, and they
are getting them. I wonder what will happen in some states after current
council directors retire. Will that signal the time for legislators to break up
the staffs? Is the only thing holding legislative councils together today the
strong directors who have carried over from the past?
The linkage between professional staff and
the legislature varies by staff agency The closer the linkage, the greater
staff influence, but the more questionable staffs professional role. Some staff
endeavour to move closer to legislators, while others try to maintain their
independence. The linkage between staff and legislators is greatest in the case
of personal staff and next, in the case of caucus staff. Legislators are closer
to those they hire and can fire. The linkage is least, as the function becomes
of lesser importance and lesser relevance to members as individuals. The less
linkage between the staff agency and the political process, the less
legislative support there will be for staff.
For example, the auditing function is of
relatively little interest to legislators and consequently the linkage between
what auditors do and what the members of the legislature do is not great.
Integrating auditing into the legislative process is something that must be
worked at constantly. The problem of audit-evaluation agencies today is that
they want to be responsive to legislators and yet they want to maintain the
independence they need to do their job. If they are too independent, however,
there is a question of whether their work will be utilized and whether it will
have any impact.
Relatively few legislators are concerned
with the overall organization and conduct of staff. Leadership is too busy with
other problems to pay much attention to matters of staffing. Legislative
leaders are trying to maintain themselves in power, since they are more likely
to be challenged today than ever before. One of the things they do to maintain
themselves in power is to raise money for the election of members of their
caucuses. In more than one-third of the states, as a matter of fact, leaders
spend considerable time raising money and allocating funds to their party's
incumbents and challengers. This is a far cry from ten or twenty years ago.
Whether leaders or rank and file,
legislators are notoriously poor as administrators. I cannot conceive of
leaders being bothered by administration or staff organization. In most places,
collective mechanisms by which leaders administer the senate and house do not
work terribly well. The Joint Committee on Legislative Organization in
Wisconsin and the Legislative Service Commission in New Jersey, for example,
are not overly effective. Members simply do not participate much in the
administrative tasks of these agencies. By contrast, the Joint Committee on
Legislative Management in Connecticut, for some peculiar reasons, has been
quite effective. The leaders sitting on Legislative Management have taken a
responsible role in the overall administration of staff in their legislature.
One needs to devise ways of getting the
attention of legislative leaders getting them involved in the administration
and management of their institution. This is no easy thing to do. Nor am I
suggesting that this is something staff can do. Still, it would be nice if it
Let me conclude by saying that from either a
functional or a professional perspective, staff has certainly carved out a
significant role over the past two decades. There will always be tension, due
to staff turnover and problems of satisfying professionals and keeping them
from moving on. But these problems can be worked on, if not worked out.
I am most concerned about the institutional
aspects of staffing. The question is how can staff contribute to the
legislature as an institution? It is too easy for staff to go in one direction
doing its professional thing and doing it well, while the legislature goes in
another direction doing its political thing and doing it well.
Staff should be involved in shaping the
institutional orientations of legislators, and getting legislators to take
their administrative responsibilities more seriously. Such must be done very
tactfully and subtly, or not at all. It depends upon a far better process of
orienting legislators. Legislative orientations should not be thought of merely
as something for freshmen members as they enter the legislature and need help
finding the bill room. Orientation is an ongoing process, a learning
experience. It is one that does not stop after the first two weeks of a new
legislature, but goes on through the entire first session and then continues
after re-election and into the next session.
Legislatures as institutions of
representative government are under siege today Like legislators themselves,
members of legislative staffs have a large stake in what happens to the
legislature. They will have to give the institution their careful – and I hope,
loving – attention.