Justin Talbot-Zorn
The American Prospect, March 7, 2018

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Every day brings new stories of America’s civil service exodus. By last count, the Environmental Protection Agency was down 508 employees since the start of the Trump administration, the Census Bureau lost more than a thousand, and many of the State Department’s most seasoned Foreign Service Officers have departed. There’s also evidence that few are interested in refilling their ranks: The number of Americans applying to take the Foreign Service exam declined by 33 percent last year.

As someone who was a longtime congressional staffer, I’ve seen a similar dynamic play out on Capitol Hill. In an atmosphere of gridlock and exhausting reality TV politics, many talented and experienced staffers have decided to take their talents elsewhere. The old D.C. cliché that Capitol Hill is run by 23-year-olds is becoming an indisputable reality. 

Of all the impacts of the Trump administration’s attacks on government, this flight of experience and talent could wind up being among the most consequential. We’re losing a generation of highly skilled public servants in both the executive and legislative branches. It will take years to recruit and train competent scientists, policy experts, and professional administrators who can once again staff the federal government.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, we don’t have to wait until the next administration to start rebuilding public sector capacity. It’s possible for progressives to build a bench of talented federal policymakers right now. This can start with staff capacity on Capitol Hill.

Congressional staff have long played a crucial role in government—negotiating and writing legislation, advising agencies, conducting investigations, and communicating policies to the public. In an age when lawmakers spend several hours a day dialing for dollars, staff are increasingly responsible for the business of legislating.  

If Democrats regain control of Congress, staff capacity will be key to developing creative ideas, converting them into sound policies, messaging them effectively, and mobilizing the electorate around them—all while holding the administration accountable. Looking to the longer term, the next president will need to tap senior congressional staff for key policymaking positions and agency leadership roles.  

Progressives shouldn’t be indifferent to the Capitol Hill brain drain right now.  

At a time of historic grassroots energy and extraordinary candidate recruitment, talented people should be lining up to serve on the Hill—the front lines of the resistance.   

There’s a relatively simple reason why they’re not showing up yet. 

The most capable, principled, energized would-be staffers are often bewildered by the process of landing employment on Capitol Hill. Those interested in congressional positions have traditionally had to deal with the uncertainty of joining a political campaign or the excessive costs of taking on an unpaid internship or fellowship. Hill offices can be insular in their hiring, so it can be essential to get such a foothold. While working in Congress is one of the most strategic ways to impact policymaking, most talented people who are committed to advancing the public interest more frequently opt instead to work at nonprofits, or in academia or the private sector.

One simple solution is to create better on-ramps

One simple solution is to create better on-ramps—including a more straightforward and standardized application processes like those of legal clerkships—to recruit people for Hill jobs. Progressive policy organizations should work together to identify top talent (for example, from leading graduate schools), steering people toward substantive policy positions on the Hill, providing training and tools to succeed in legislative offices, and helping them with placement by vouching for their skills and credentials. One particularly effective way to do this would be to create new externally funded legislative fellowship positions, along the lines of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science congressional fellowship program and the Brookings Legis program. Such programs launch careers, build needed capabilities, and preserve lawmakers’ limited staff budgets.

For a very small fraction of what progressive donors will spend in this year’s midterms, they could also invest in building a talent pipeline. Concretely, they could create a program to recruit and train exceptional professionals and to fund paid fellowships that augment capacity in Washington. Donors regularly spend $10 million or more for just the chance to win a single congressional seat. The same amount of money could guarantee the placement of more than 100 substantive new policymakers on the Hill—transforming progressives’ ability to shape debates and ultimately govern. While staffers obviously can’t vote on legislation or change control of a chamber, they can vastly improve the functions that matter most in an age of gridlock: designing bills, exercising oversight, maneuvering amendments through the appropriations process, managing media, liaising with the grassroots, and ultimately selling a substantive and compelling policy agenda that can help win future elections. While investing in the nation’s future governing capacity in this manner would be a long-term project, it would also pay short-term dividends.

Conservatives got this message decades ago. Today, there’s a huge network of capacity-building programs on the right, including the Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, the Charles Koch Institute’s Hill-focused professional development programs, the Federalist Society’s multifaceted pipeline for right-wing legal talent, Capitol Hill staff programs from the conservative Tax Foundation and Mercatus Center, and multiple talent development programs from neoconservative groups like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Foreign Policy Initiative. Well-staffed strategy platforms like the Republican Study Committee have long been essential to GOP policy development, coordination, and communication. 

There’s hardly anything comparable on the center or center-left.

The need for Congressional staff capacity didn’t start with the Trump Era. As Lee Drutman, Steven Teles, and other political scientists have shown, declines in general staff funding since Newt Gingrich’s speakership have had devastating impacts on Congress’s ability to withstand lobbying pressure, and ultimately on Congress’s ability to “think for itself.” As Drutman and Teles have argued, progressive reformers have the opportunity to open a new front in the fight against the dominance of corporate money in politics by investing in staff capacity. 

If we want to restore a trustworthy and capable government, and design and implement a successful long-term policy agenda, it’s essential to start focusing on people. 

Justin Talbot-Zorn is Senior Adviser for Policy and Strategy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  Justin previously served as Legislative Director for three Democratic Members of Congress. A Fulbright Fellow and Truman Fellow, Justin has written for The Washington Post, Time, Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The American Prospect, Fortune and CNN.