You don't have to hang around Capitol Hill long to realize that congressional staff members are the people who generally run things in the House and Senate.
It's the elected members of both chambers who make all the speeches and grab all the attention. But, truth be told, most of those esteemed lawmakers would have trouble understanding almost all of the issues before them if they weren't backed up by legions of staff who work extraordinarily long hours researching those matters and then explaining them to their bosses.That's why a recent study of employment practices in the House was most distressing. Written by a non-profit, non-partisan foundation, the report produced a long series of findings, the most startling of which involved experience on the job.
In 1990, the study said, the average job tenure for a House aide was 2.9 years - a 15 percent drop since 1987 - and that half of the staff members had been at their posts for less than a year.
Those factors, the study argued, were causing "nothing short of a management crisis in Congress."
"It means that members of the House are generally receiving essential advice and support from staff who have considerably less experience than the staff they worked with just three years ago," the report concluded. "The trend almost certainly hampers the effectiveness of the members and the House as a whole."
For Americans upset with the budget battle that tied Congress in knots this fall, there is little question they believe federal lawmakers are inefficient. The critical question is what is the solution.
From the staff level at least, it would appear changed working conditions rather than salary may play a larger role.
The study determined that average salaries among House staff were generally lower than those paid in the executive branch or in the private sector and suggested that raising staff pay would help retain talented people on Capitol Hill.
However, when you listen to the complaints of congressional staff workers, salary is rarely at the top of their gripe list.
Instead, they frequently - and often bitterly - complain about the people they work for, the elected officials they try to make look good.
Words like "dictator" and "idiot" are common descriptions of some lawmakers from staff members who have had to put up with sometimes outrageous demands from their bosses at all hours of the day and night.
The lawmakers, some of the aides complain in private, are so obsessed with looking good in the public eye that they forget about things like common-sense staff relations.
Richard Shapiro, who helped write the report, contended that the study showed "work in Congress has become a steppingstone for the young and the restless rather than a career for the dedicated and experienced."
If lawmakers want that to change, they may want to re-evaluate their own behavior.