Senators and Senate committees operated with little or no staff assistance until the middle of the 19th century. In the 1850s, standing committees began to employ clerks on a case-by-case basis with the approval of the full Senate. These early clerks were typically hired only for a session and were paid on a per diem basis. On occasion, committees requested that their clerks be employed on a full-time basis with an annual salary.
In March 1857, the Senate adopted a resolution that prohibited all but three committees—Printing, Finance, and Claims—from appointing permanent clerks with annual salaries. In the years that followed, senators were reluctant to expand the ranks of permanent committee clerks. Chairmen of the Committee on Military Affairs—Jefferson Davis of Mississippi in 1859 and Henry Wilson of Massachusetts in 1860—introduced resolutions to make their clerk a full-time position but were met with opposition in the full Senate. In 1877, however, Congress appropriated annual salaries for clerks of the Appropriations, Finance, Claims, Commerce, Judiciary, Private Land Claims, and Pension Committees and funds to pay an additional 27 clerks for Senate committees on a per diem basis. The list of committees with permanent clerks, and later assistant clerks and messengers, grew steadily into the first decade of the 20th century. Starting in 1911 all Senate committee staff were paid an annual salary.
Meanwhile, the Senate did not authorize senators to hire staff for their personal offices until the mid-1880s. Only senators who chaired a committee benefitted from staff support. In practice, committee clerks served both the committees for which they were hired and the personal office of the committee chair who hired them. Some senators who desired staff assistance hired part-time clerks at their own expense, but mostly, the number of standing committees grew as senators sought chairmanships and the staff support that came with them.
In 1884 the Senate for the first time made allowance for senators who were not committee chairs to hire a clerk at the rate of $6 per day while the Senate was in session. Zebulon Vance of North Carolina became the first senator authorized to hire a full-time clerk with an annual salary after he lost an eye and required assistance in 1889. In 1893 the Senate designated all personal office clerks as permanent employees with annual salaries. During the 1910s, legislative appropriations acts allowed senators to add assistant clerks, stenographers, and messengers to their offices.
The composition of committee and personal staffs changed in the first decades of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, when most committee clerk positions were part-time, committee chairman controlled the hiring of committee staff and typically filled those posts with close associates. They often hired newspaper correspondents who were looking to supplement their income. Into the 20th century, it was not uncommon for senators to employ wives, sons, or daughters in their personal offices and on committee staff. By the 1910s, staff were becoming full-time professionals. Women were hired in increasing numbers as assistant clerks and messengers in the 1910s and filled about half of all committee staff positions by the 1920s. A number of women broke through to serve as the top clerk for major committees in the 1910s. African Americans began to gain staff positions as early as the 1920s, but it would take several more decades for the number of Black staff in professional positions on committee and personal staffs to grow significantly.
Legislative appropriations acts periodically authorized additional staff for senators’ personal offices, and by 1939 all senators were entitled to at least six staff members. That year, for the first time, the Senate also took state population size into account when allotting staff, with senators from states of three million people or more authorized to hire one additional staff member. In 1947 each senator was authorized to hire one administrative assistant to manage their offices, the position that would later come to be called chief of staff. Beginning in 1948, senators were appropriated a lump sum for clerk-hire and given the discretion to structure their office staffs as they saw fit.
The growth in federal government responsibilities following the Great Depression and World War II led Congress to examine its own capacity to analyze increasingly complex policy issues and conduct effective oversight of executive agencies. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 authorized each standing committee to hire six permanent professional staff and six permanent clerical staff, who were to be selected without regard to party affiliation. Also that year, committee chairmen were authorized to hire their own personal office staffs, the same as other senators, so that committee staff could focus exclusively on committee work. Senate committees also benefitted from additional stenographers, clerks, investigators, and counsel provided in annual legislative appropriations acts to support investigations.
By the early 1960s, some senators believed that the staffing goals of the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act had not been realized. Committee chairmen continued to control a large share of committee staff, leaving minority and junior members with few staff resources. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois began calling for additional committee appointments to support the minority. In addition, some chairmen continued assigning committee staff to duties in their personal offices, while junior and minority party senators, such as William Brock of Tennessee, Mike Gravel of Alaska, and Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, protested that they were forced to rely on their personal office staff to assist them with their committee work, even as other demands on their personal staff were growing. They highlighted the inequality of the existing committee staffing system and called for reform.
Senators Brock and Gravel introduced a resolution in 1975, with 55 co-sponsors, to authorize the hiring of additional personal staff for committee work. The Senate approved the proposal, and each senator was allotted funding for two staff assistants for each major committee on which they served, and one staff assistant for each minor committee, as well as two staff assistants for any subcommittee for which they were chairman or ranking minority member. These new staff positions would report to the individual member, rather than the committee chair or ranking member, and would have all of the privileges of permanent professional staff. In addition, the Senate created the Temporary Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System, chaired by Senators Brock and Stevenson. Based on the recommendation of the Temporary Select Committee, the Senate in 1977 required standing committees to set staff sizes in proportion to the ratio of majority to minority members on the committee, with the minority always entitled to at least one-third of total funds allocated for staff.
Staff levels in Senate offices grew steadily in the late 20th century, with the largest growth coming in senators’ home state offices. By 2020 home state staff represented about 40 percent of a senator’s personal staff, up from about 25 percent in the 1980s. Home state job titles vary from office to office but often include caseworkers, outreach coordinators, field representatives, and constituent advocates. These staff members help constituents in a variety of ways, such as applying for government benefits or dealing with federal government agencies. Home state offices may also act as liaisons between the federal government and local businesses, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations. Home state offices also include communications and press staff to keep constituents informed of senator’s work in Washington and throughout their states, as well as state directors to manage these important operations across multiple state offices.
Committee staff fluctuated in size over the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While the overall size of committee staffs remained at similar levels as the late 1970s, the staff on some of the Senate’s major committees grew steadily. For example, the Appropriations, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committees, which rely on a range of policy experts to handle some of the Senate’s most complex legislative issues, have all increased in size.
The composition of Senate staffs has gradually changed from the 1980s to the 2000s. The proportion of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and other minorities on office and committee staffs steadily grew, with much of the growth coming in home state offices. Women, who had been a key presence in clerical and support positions since the early 20th century, increasingly moved into executive and policy-related roles. Communications staff and press secretaries became a larger share of member offices as senators became more engaged with the media and in communicating their work to constituents back home.
As the demands on the time and resources of senators have grown over the course of Senate history, the institution has increasingly come to rely on the energy and expertise of staff members. Today staff continue to serve an integral role in helping the Senate meet its constitutional responsibilities.
Return to About Committee and Office Staff