By Bret Bernhardt
This may sound like an esoteric and idyllic response to retaining good talent on Capitol Hill, because that is what it is. But all worthy efforts start with big ideas and lofty aspirations.
So is the remedy for what ails congressional talent retention.
In all the important decisions we make in life, including those of aspiring Hill staffers, we consciously or unconsciously keep two factors in mind:
What repels me and what compels me to make a change? That is, what is repelling me from where I am now and what is compelling me to seek something else.
When these two factors are out of balance — that is, when the repelling factor is greater than the compelling factor — then I am apt to change my current situation.
However, if the compelling factor is less than the repelling factor, then I’m apt to stay. When these two are in equilibrium, I’m also apt to stay put.
Therefore, considering factors within Congress is important, as Casey Burgat of the R Street Institute points out in his recent testimony before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
“One could argue that the Hill actually does offer, in some cases, more financial incentives than the competition does for good staffers to stay.”
There are also things outside of Congress that compel a staffer to leave. What factors compel a staffer to leave? Typically, these include financial reward and quality of life.
While pay is important, it is not the most important tool Congress has at its disposal, as Burgat notes. One could argue that the Hill actually does offer, in some cases, more financial incentives than the competition does for good staffers to stay.
Consider, for example, the congressional retirement system, which typically brings senior people back to the Hill from downtown to complete their legislative service for the purpose of qualifying for their congressional pension. Pensions in America are now a rare commodity, and thus provide Congress a very attractive retention tool.
I’d suggest, however, that there are very compelling reasons other than pay to work and stay in Congress. First and foremost is a sense of calling and mission. We used to call that “public service,” a phrase that is now something of an antiquated term.
The late Herb Kelleher who headed Southwest Airlines, once said in response to the observation that he was a servant leader, “what the hell is that?” At first I chuckled at the apparent question. Then I realized that perhaps Kelleher was making a statement instead.
“Our right to petition is a cornerstone of our constitutional governance. But it has shifted too far, and for good reason.”
We tend to think of servant leadership as simply another leadership model. If I serve you, I can get you to do what I want. However, was he simply saying that being a servant is a pathway to service itself? I believe it was the latter.
Instilling a genuine sense of public service on the Hill can certainly do great good for retention.
It’s also important to note that the compelling factors that draw people away are antithetical in many cases to public service. The most noteworthy is that of a lucrative position in government relations, or lobbying.
Many genuine public servants are now lobbyists. They do so out of a need for petitioning in our representative form of government. Our right to petition is a cornerstone of our constitutional governance. But it has shifted too far, and for good reason.
The allure of work off the Hill is directly proportional to the growth and pervasiveness of government itself. Chart a line that shows the growth and pervasiveness of government alongside the growth in the number of lobbyists and you’ll find in it an interesting parallel.
This should come as no surprise to anyone, but it is possibly the principal reason for the brain drain on Capitol Hill. Bringing this into equilibrium will cure most of the problem.
Saying this is a difficult problem to address is an understatement. However it is a significant reason for turnover on Capitol Hill. The remedy is bigger than retention initiatives. It goes to the heart of the institutions we have created
But that requires monumental changes in how we view government.
Bret Bernhardt served on the Hill as chief of staff to senators Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He is now a member of the board of directors of Faith & Law and the Conservative Partnership Institute.