Working in Congress (Part #1): Background and some EA cause area analysis

About this post

Working in Congress could be a highly impactful career choice for EAs who are US citizens and permanent residents, as 80,000 Hours has written about in their Congressional staffer career guide. This two-part overview complements that guide by explaining in more detail how Congress works. The goal is to allow EAs to make informed decisions about (a) whether Congress is a good place for them to work, (b) which Congressional jobs they could/​should target and why, and (c) how to find and pursue opportunities.

  • Part #1 (this post) focuses on providing the necessary background about Congress. The post is structured like a funnel, moving from general information about Congress to specific information about the relevant committees and members across different EA cause areas. The cause areas that are (briefly) discussed in the post include AI, biosecurity, animal welfare, and global development.

    • Audience: The primary audience is EAs thinking about working in Congress, but this post may also be useful to people who work on policy generally or who are simply interested in learning more about the US government.

  • Part #2 focuses on “next steps” for EAs interested in seriously exploring working in Congress, and includes resources and tactical suggestions for people across different career stages (current students, recent graduates, and people with terminal degrees and/​or several years of work experience).

The posts are published anonymously for reputational reasons. The content of the posts is based on the author’s personal experience working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and conversations with more than two dozen EAs and non-EAs with extensive Congressional experience. For those who want to go deeper on Congress, some sources I’ve found useful are included in the following endnote.[1]

Edited to add: This post is focused on a US context, but see here if you are interested in UK politics. It would be great if others wrote up similar posts for political systems they are familiar with.

1. Why (and how to) think about working in Congress?

There are two main reasons that you could consider working in Congress: (1) your ability to have a direct impact and (2) the career capital you could gain. However, working in Congress isn’t for everyone. As a backdrop for the remainder of this two-part post, this section outlines the questions you’ll want to keep in mind as you assess whether and where you might want to work in Congress.

1.1 Opportunities for direct impact

Most issues EAs care about are affected in significant ways (both positive and negative) by the US government and, by extension, Congress. There is a lot of good you can do while working in Congress, potentially on multiple EA cause areas at the same time.

What could you actually work on, in concrete terms? Most EA-relevant[2] activity in Congress falls into one of four buckets:

  • Legislation. Congress writes legislation that, if passed and enacted, serves as the law of the land. Memorialized in Schoolhouse Rock videos, the legislative process is perhaps the most famous of Congressional functions; many important things the US government does are due to legislative initiatives. For example, Open Philanthropy’s recent post on its AI governance grantmaking highlighted the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act as an example of high-impact technology governance. The law created a highly successful program to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in post-Soviet states.

  • Appropriations.[3] Congress also “appropriates” funds, which is a fancy way of saying that it determines (at least at a high level) what the government spends money on. While the President proposes a budget, the final package that Congress passes is often quite different from this proposal. As will be discussed in more detail below (Section 3.2), “appropriation” is separate from “authorization”: while an authorization bill can allow the NSF to spend $500 million on AI safety research, for instance, a separate appropriations bill is required to actually spend it.

  • Oversight. Congress also oversees whether executive agencies faithfully implement the law and spend their money correctly, using oversight tools including hearings, Member letters, reporting requirements, or subpoenas. For example, if Congress directed NSF to fund AI safety research and appropriated $500 million for this purpose, the relevant committee(s) can hold hearings or request documentation to check in on the program’s impact and verify that the money is actually spent according to Congressional intent.

  • Amplification. Last but not necessarily least, Congress makes news. Some (or lots) of this is politics and uninteresting from an EA perspective. But not everything is. If companies endanger the public good, for example, the glare of the spotlight is one of the best tools available for changing their behavior. Members can also use their profile or Congressional tools such as hearings to put neglected issues on the agenda, generate momentum for policy ideas, or change the Overton window. Much of this involves shaping media coverage and public debate.

As an institution, Congress is easy to dismiss or underestimate. Power within the US government has steadily shifted to the executive branch in recent decades, and lots of Hill activity is theater designed to advance someone’s electoral interests. However, most of the antics that get media attention are not representative of what happens in Congress — there is lots of selection bias in what gets covered (generally speaking: the more polarized and theatrical, the more coverage). Things that work often do so precisely because, and only if, they happen outside of public view. Lots of important issues are unsexy or nonpartisan. Many aspects of Congress are genuinely dysfunctional or confusing, but some of the ways in which it works are legible only once you get to know the institution better. Plenty of power still resides in the legislative branch, especially when it comes to spending and budgets (see Section 3.2).

As a staffer on the Hill, you will have many opportunities to shape Congressional action, even (for better or worse) if you are relatively young and inexperienced: there aren’t many other places where 25-year-olds or recent hires can get as much responsibility. Members themselves are incredibly busy, and only spend about a quarter of their time on policy work.[4] Many lack the expertise necessary to grasp or contribute to complicated debates, and/​or don’t have institutional power to push through changes. By choice or necessity, Members delegate with abandon. As the journalist Robert Kaiser notes in Act of Congress, his history of regulatory reform in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, committee staffers often have more influence on the substance of legislation than Members themselves.[5] (More evidence on the impact staffers can have is presented in the 80,000 Hours career profile.)

1.2 Acquiring policy knowledge, skills, and connections

The second reason to consider working in Congress is that you will acquire policy knowledge, skills, and connections that are valuable as career capital. These include (mainly assuming non-entry level roles, though some of this is true across the board):

  • Knowledge. On policy issues, you will learn a little about a lot, as the job requires you to know about a large portfolio of issues. Congressional staffers are generalists, though if you get to (co-)lead on legislation or other projects you might also specialize a little. You’ll also build expertise in Congressional process and politics. More broadly, you will get to know how the US government functions (what agencies exist, what their jurisdictions and authorities are, how budgets are shaped, etc.), and how societal groups can influence US government behavior.

  • Skills. You will be required to work under pressure in a fast-paced environment, to make complex decisions under significant uncertainty, and to weigh different interests and build coalitions. You will practice working with colleagues with whom you often disagree, and for bosses whose management skills are often suboptimal. Frequent tasks include writing (memos, statements, etc.), background research, constituent service, and participating in or running policy briefings and meetings.

  • Connections. You will build a deep network on the Hill. Moreover, since turnover is high, most of your Congressional colleagues will eventually move into other policy positions; chances are that the friends you make on the Hill will be working all over DC within a few years of meeting them. Staffers also frequently interact with a large number of external stakeholders, including academics and experts, industry representatives, civil society advocates, and federal agency personnel. All of these connections could be useful in expanding your network, and in some cases they lead directly to jobs down the line.

Note that these skills are “transferrable,” but much of the knowledge and many of the networks you build while working in Congress are relevant mainly to other government or policy jobs. If you think there is a high likelihood that you’d want to go into (non-lobbying-related) private sector roles afterward, a Congressional staff job may not be your best springboard. Congressional staff are often supposed to be invisible; your name will not be listed on any public writing, and the nature and difficulty of your work may not be legible to people unfamiliar with Congress. Of course, you can usually find ways to sell your staff work as relevant to follow-on jobs. But be aware that, on average, Congressional work will give you much less of a boost outside of DC than inside of it.

It is an open question which of these two channels — direct impact or downstream career advancement — dominate expected impact.[6] On the one hand, Congress can be dysfunctional. There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about staffers’ ability to get things done, in which case career impacts may loom larger in your calculations. On the other hand, many issues EAs care about are not particularly partisan (e.g., pandemic preparedness). There are certainly plausible scenarios in which a skilled staffer in the right place at the right time could, say, counterfactually move tens or hundreds of millions in US government spending. The ~15 EAs with relevant experience who weighed in on this post had a range of views about this question. But all agreed with the overarching idea that working in Congress can be highly valuable.

1.3 Congress is not for everyone

The fact that working in Congress could help you make an impact doesn’t mean you should work there. Many EAs — even those interested in and suited to policy work — are not going to be a great cultural or professional fit for the Hill. More than most other DC institutions, Congress is often dominated by politics, of both the office and ideological varieties. Hours and pay can be terrible. Many people who have happily worked in DC or the US government for years will shudder or laugh when you ask them if they’d consider working on Capitol Hill. Moreover, while Congress attracts many hard-working and idealistic staffers, the moral frameworks they bring to the job are generally very different from those of EAs. See Post #2 for more on these and other fit questions.

1.4 What to think about when you’re thinking about working in Congress

To summarize, when you’re thinking about whether and where to work in Congress, three sets of questions that should be on your radar are:

  • From a direct impact perspective, you’ll want to consider (among other things) where in Congress you can work on issues that you care about, and whether the policy goals you want to pursue are within the purview of Congress and politically feasible.

  • From a career perspective, you’ll want to consider (among other things) what responsibilities you would get in different types of roles, and who you would get to interact with. If you are in it mostly to gain skills and experience, you may not need to worry as much about getting to work directly on EA-related issues.

  • From a fit perspective, you’ll want to consider (among other things) what your day-to-day experience would be like, what tasks you would focus on, and what your direct colleagues might be like.

The rest of this post and Post #2 are designed to help you think through these and other questions and — if you decide Congress may actually be a good place for you — to help you get a job.

2. Where in Congress might you want to work (in general)?

From an employment perspective, Congress is not really a single institution. It is sometimes compared to a collection of 535 small businesses — one per Member — with each having their own priorities, rules, hierarchies, and culture. What is true for one Congressional office or committee may not be true for another, especially across parties and between the two chambers. Ultimately, the only way to find out whether you would like to work in a specific office is by talking to people who are familiar with the staff and the Member.

That said, there are some general differences between Congressional offices that will shape your experience of working in a specific office: (1) whether it is part of the Senate or House, (2) whether it is a committee or personal office, and (3) whether it is part of the majority or minority party.

2.1 House versus Senate

The two chambers of Congress, the House and the Senate, are very different institutions. Members of one chamber don’t often interact with members of the other, and both chambers have their own rules and cultures. For example, the House is more majoritarian and centralized, while in the Senate individuals have more influence, including those in the minority (more on this below). The Senate has historically been less polarized, though this has been changing recently. As set out in the Constitution, the two chambers also have slightly different responsibilities and functions. For example, only the Senate has a say on treaties and presidential appointments.

The table below helps illustrate some quantitative and less well-known differences and similarities:

  • Senators serve on about twice as many committees and subcommittees compared to Representatives. Almost all Senators in the majority party chair at least one subcommittee, compared to less than half of Representatives. (The next section, on committees, discusses why this matters.)

  • House personal offices are on average one-third the size of Senate offices (though Senate office size varies greatly by the size of the state). However, committees are roughly equally well-staffed (or poorly-staffed) in both houses.

  • Legislation faces long odds in both the House and Senate: In both chambers, the share of introduced bills that get passed (around 15%) and that actually become law (around 10% or less) is small.[7] (Note that most bills in Congress are introduced with no expectation, or even hope, that they will actually pass. These are often called “messaging bills.”)

Source: Calculated based on Brookings Vital Statistics on Congress. Most recent data reported: Committee data are from the 116th Congress, Staff data are from 2015, and Activity data are from the 115th Congress. Data on DC-based personal staff are from CRS (#1 and #2); note that the size of a personal office depends on the number of constituents and thus varies greatly across offices.

How does all of this affect your experience of working in Congress?[8] Every Member, office, and set of circumstances are unique, but as a general matter (for personal offices):

  • Because House offices are significantly smaller, the portfolios of House staffers generally include a larger set of topics than those of their Senate counterparts. For example, in the House a single staffer is often the office’s point person on issues ranging from foreign affairs and finance to energy and technology policy all at the same time. This generally means working as a staffer in a House personal office is more frenetic (though the Senate is only slightly better).

  • Because House members have to be re-elected every 2 years (compared to 6 for Senators) they operate on shorter time horizons, and much of their staff’s “policy” work consists of glorified press releases (though this can depend on how electorally safe their seat is). Generally speaking, work in the House requires a greater tolerance of politicization.

  • Because House members serve on fewer committees and generally have less individual influence, the actual impact you can have as a House staffer is limited to a narrower set of issues (which issues those are depends on your member’s interests and committee assignments).

  • Because committees are bigger and power is more concentrated in the House, the chances that you have an impact in the House depend more strongly on whether your boss is in a leadership position (either on their committee or in their party more broadly). If your boss is influential, you may be able to have impact in a larger range of areas.

2.2 Committee versus personal office

Much of the substantive work of Congress — such as crafting legislation, conducting investigations, and holding hearings — is done in committees. Every Member sits on at least one committee (average of 1.8 per Representative and 3.5 per Senator, see table above). The vast majority of a Member’s legislative activity and influence will involve issues that fall within their committees’ jurisdiction.

The most important Congressional committees are “standing committees,” of which there are 20 in the House and 16 in the Senate. Each of these committees has their own areas of jurisdiction and federal agencies that they oversee. There are also a handful of “special,” “select,” and “joint” committees that are usually (though not always) less influential. A full list of committees is available here. (We will go over some specific EA-relevant committees in more detail in Section 3.3; in this section, the focus is more general.)

The bulk of Congressional staff works in personal offices (“personal staff”), but a significant portion are committee staff (~25%, see table above).[9] The day-to-day work of committee staffers tends to be different from that of personal staff. Some of the main differences between committee and personal office work include:

  • Committee staff are typically more senior and experienced. Committee positions are seen as more prestigious, and turnover in these roles tends to be lower (especially in the Senate). Committee staff are also better-paid.

  • Committee staff do not deal with constituent service, which takes up a lot of personal office staff time. For example, in the House, a junior personal legislative staffer could spend 50-75% of their time processing constituent questions, feedback, and requests.[10]

  • Committee staff tend to be more specialized, with narrower issue portfolios. They therefore get to build up more expertise, but this also means that they interact with fewer outside groups and stakeholders.

  • Committee staff generally take the lead on the details of substantive legislative work, or, at minimum, assist personal office staff when crafting legislation that will be debated and voted on by the committee. They also have more oversight power and experience, leading agencies to pay more attention to them.

To be clear, none of this means that committee staff work is apolitical or leisurely. You can still get sidetracked by news cycles, fall victim to partisan bickering, get pulled off a project on short notice to organize a hearing or write statements, and so forth. The frequency with which this happens depends on the jurisdiction and culture of the committee and the personalities of its senior members.

As a committee staffer, you will still be associated with one of the two parties. The Chair of the committee always comes from their chamber’s majority party, and the Ranking Member is the minority party’s designated lead. Almost every committee staff role is designated as either a “majority” or a “minority” role. The Chair and RM control much of the committee staff hiring and set the committee’s agenda (more on this below). Committee staff often (especially in the Senate) work closely with the personal staff of the Chair (if they are majority staff) or RM (if they are minority staff). While the House and Senate are very different institutions to work for from the perspective of personal office staff, for committee staff the distinctions between the two chambers are smaller.[11]

Most committees have multiple subcommittees, each of which also have a Chair and RM. These subcommittees can often set their own agendas to some extent, hire their own staff (especially in the Senate), and do a lot of the legwork on legislation, oversight, and so forth. In principle, all of the points about committee staff work above also apply to subcommittee staff, although intra-committee power dynamics can sometimes diminish subcommittees’ influence over issues that would normally fall within their purview (discussed in more detail in Section 3.1).

2.3 Majority versus minority party

The third overarching factor that will affect your work experience in Congress is whether you work for the majority or minority party in your chamber. Agenda-setting power is concentrated in the majority — because of their control of committees and which bills come to the floor — so it is harder to get things done while in the minority.[12] The majority party also gets to hire more staff, especially in the House. It’s generally better (and more pleasant) to work for your chamber’s majority party.

However, the extent to which being in the majority matters depends on a few factors:

  • House versus Senate. The House is more majoritarian than the Senate, which means it’s harder for the minority to have any kind of influence. In the Senate, where the filibuster and individual “holds” are common legislative tools, the axiom goes that “the majority determines what comes to the floor and the minority determines what leaves.”

  • Issues. Some issues are less polarized than others, and on less polarized issues the minority has a larger chance of influencing the content of Congressional action, for example through bipartisan staff work.

  • Committees. Some (sub)committees are also less polarized. This is related to, but also distinct from, the topics they work on. If a committee has jurisdiction over many hot-button issues, its culture is more likely to be polarized, and bipartisan initiatives rare. However, there are also other ways a committee could become polarized, such as when the leading members or their senior staffers simply don’t get along.

  • Presidency. Minority staffers also have more opportunities for influence when their party controls the presidency, as they can then influence and coordinate with White House and agency legislative staff.

Of course, you may not have much control over whether you work for the majority or the minority. Many of us have policy positions that are only compatible with one party’s agenda, and it makes sense to work for that party regardless of their current electoral fortunes. Nor does working for the minority party necessarily ruin your experience or impact. For example, minority staffers can lay the groundwork for big initiatives that they can pursue once the political winds shift, or work on a bipartisan bill that has a chance of immediate passage. Minority staffers also gain the same career-related benefits (e.g., skills, network, etc.).

If your personal political or policy ideas are compatible with both political parties, note that it’s not unheard of to switch parties as a staffer, especially in committee roles. For example, you could start in a moderate Republican’s personal office and subsequently apply for a Democratic committee position. However, the viability of switching strongly depends on the circumstances, and it is generally very difficult to pull off. The vast majority of people on the Hill pick a side and stick with it, whether they like it or not. If partisanship is strongly aversive to you, think twice before working in Congress.

3. Where in Congress might you want to work (for specific cause areas)?

In deciding where in Congress you may want to work, one important question is which policy ideas you want to pursue. After you have thought of those ideas — or, more likely, if you trust that subject-matter experts have already done a sufficiently good job identifying and vetting them — the second step is to figure out which (sub)committees have jurisdiction over the relevant governmental functions and federal agencies, and which Members care about your issue. This section will focus on this second step.

3.1 Which committees have jurisdiction and power?

Most causes that EAs care about are cross-cutting, which means there are multiple committees whose work touches on relevant government functions within any given cause area. For instance, any of the following goals could be relevant to the same issue — I’ve used biorisk-related ideas for illustration — while falling (potentially) under the purview of different committees:

  • Allocating research funds (e.g., for work on broad-spectrum vaccines)

  • Directing government technical or policy studies (e.g., on the sufficiency of public health-related stockpiles)

  • Mandating data collection and/​or dissemination (e.g., on the number, location, and activities of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs)

  • Encouraging diplomatic activity on relevant international initiatives (e.g., strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention)

  • Regulating academic or industry activity (e.g., preventing DNA synthesis companies from synthesizing viruses)

Unfortunately, figuring out which committee has jurisdiction over your issue or idea is not always straightforward. Partly this is because jurisdiction is often a source of conflict between committees. Take, for instance, financial regulatory reform in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (which would end up producing the legislation known as “Dodd-Frank”).[13] The House and Senate Agriculture committees ended up playing a surprisingly significant role in this story. This was because Agriculture has jurisdiction over the CFTC, a federal agency that regulates futures trading. This made sense when the CFTC was created in 1974, at a time when futures were mostly used for commodities. By the late 2000s, however, the instrument had spread far beyond the agricultural sector. This was lucrative for Agriculture committee members: for the 2008 election cycle, Senators on Agriculture got nearly $29 million in contributions from the financial sector, more than double what they received from agribusiness ($11 million). They thus had a vested interest in retaining their committee’s oversight of the CFTC and in maximizing the role played by the CFTC in financial regulation. The Senate Banking and House Financial Services committees, however, wanted the SEC in charge, pushing back against Agriculture throughout the process. And committees whose name might suggest involvement in these debates (e.g., Senate Finance) in fact had no real relevant jurisdiction at all.

Jurisdiction can also differ across the Senate and House. For example, in the Senate, the Commerce committee has jurisdiction over the NSF, but this is not true for its closest equivalent in the House (Energy & Commerce) because the House has a separate Science committee (recall that the House has 20 standing committees whereas the Senate has 16). Moreover, in the House, a piece of legislation whose subject matter crosses several committees of jurisdiction will be referred to multiple committees. In the Senate, however, legislation is almost always assigned to a single committee that has “predominant” jurisdiction. This means that if you work on a House committee that has a jurisdictional claim to a matter of interest to you, your committee will always have a role to play in the development of that legislation (e.g., through a potential committee markup), but this is not necessarily the case in the Senate.

Finally, conflicts can also take place within committees. Subcommittees generally do most of the substantive work, but if the full committee chair is interested in an issue, they can choose to elevate it to the full committee level (as happened in Dodd-Frank). And all of this changes over time: subcommittees are often reorganized, started, or killed when a new Congress is sworn in (which happens every two years).

In short, to figure out all the jurisdictional questions around your issues, you usually have to do some serious research. One rule of thumb is to figure out which federal agencies would be involved in implementing a policy idea, and then tracking down which committees have oversight responsibilities for those agencies. You can typically find oversight information on committee and federal agency websites.[14] This is not a perfect system, though. For example, both chambers have general oversight (or “government affairs”) committees with very wide jurisdiction, but they’re generally focused on only a handful of issues at any given time. Some committees are more powerful and prestigious than others and can stray outside of their lane to some extent.[15] Lots also depends on the interests, personalities, and relationships of relevant committee leadership. Really knowing what’s going on typically requires inside knowledge — this is one of the things that lobbyists are paid the big bucks for. Still, a bit of googling can usually get you pretty far.

3.2 The power of the purse: Authorization versus appropriation

We will get into some specific committee analyses below. Before doing so, however, it is worth pausing to discuss a distinction that is essential for understanding which committees have power over what: the distinction between “authorization” and “appropriation.” This section will explain how the little-known Appropriations committee (which, if you want to sound like an insider, you should refer to as “approps”) plays an outsize role for many EA priorities.

Without getting too deep into the arcane parts of the Congressional budget process, including important distinctions between mandatory and discretionary spending, it generally works roughly as follows. At some point, authorizing committees will grant legal authority to federal agencies to take certain actions (spend money, create a new office or program, issue and enforce regulations, conduct investigations, etc.). However, agencies need funds in order to act on their authorities. Congress (generally) allocates these funds on an annual basis. Usually, this process begins when the Budget committees in the House and Senate pass a budget resolution that sets overall spending guidelines.[16] These guidelines then go to the Appropriations committees, whose 12 subcommittees subsequently craft appropriations bills for 12 sets of agencies and activities. These bills then have to be passed by the two chambers. If agencies’ appropriations are not enacted by October (the start of the government fiscal year), they have to be funded through stopgap measures (e.g., a “continuing resolution”) or stop operating until appropriations are allocated (a “government shutdown”).[17]

As those who follow US news will know, this process doesn’t always go smoothly. For our purposes, however, the important part of this story is the difference between authorization and appropriation. A common analogy for this difference is a glass of water: Authorizers decide how large the glass is, while appropriators decide how much water to pour into it — and they are under no obligation to fill the entire glass. (The analogy is somewhat inaccurate, because appropriations could also decide to fund more than is authorized or fund “unauthorized appropriations,” but the basic imagery is helpful as a heuristic.)

As a concrete example, consider the following story about the National AI Initiative Act (NAIIA), passed as part of the FY2021 defense authorization bill:

The NAIIA authorizes spending but doesn’t appropriate money. If funded, however, it would significantly ramp up federal AI investments. It authorizes $4.8 billion for NSF over the next 5 years, with another $1.15 billion for the Department of Energy (DOE) and $390 million for National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NSF, which funds the vast majority of federally supported AI academic research, estimates it spent $510 million on AI in 2020, so the NAIIA would roughly double that effort.

Whether any of this AI funding actually gets spent depends on the Appropriations committee. And this can change year by year. The authorizations span 5 years, but discretionary appropriations are generally revisited each year. If policymakers somehow lose interest in AI in the next few years, the NSF could get all of its authorized money in the first year, only half in the second year, and none from the third year onward. While that scenario is extreme, it is very common for appropriated funds to be different from what is authorized. Later appropriations could also exceed what is authorized in the NAIIA. In short, if you want the US government to spend money on something, authorization is only half of the battle.

This power over spending has long made Appropriations one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Moreover, polarization has made it harder for Congress to pass authorization bills (with some notable exceptions[18]). For example, the FEC, FBI, DHS, and the State Department have not been reauthorized for more than a decade.[19] In FY1987, the (inflation-adjusted) amount of unauthorized appropriations was about $73 billion, compared to $310 billion for FY2016. Annual authorization bills are traditionally an important tool for influencing agency priorities and behavior — when they are no longer enacted, agency officials become less concerned with what authorizing committee members think or want. The appropriators, however, still help decide what gets funded every year, and are able to influence policy by putting resources into favored programs (or keeping resources from disfavored ones). As one guide to Congress put it in 2015: the Appropriations committee is now “essentially the authorizing committee for one-third of the federal government.”[20]

The upshot of all of this is that being an Appropriations staffer could be a great path to impact. You could work either for the full committee or for one of the subcommittees: just as in regular committees, Appropriations subcommittees do a lot of the legwork (because subcommittee chairs have so much power, they are often referred to as “cardinals”). However, precisely because of the importance of Appropriations, staff positions are highly coveted and difficult to get. Lobbyists and advocates also often have a harder time engaging with Appropriations staff. One alternative is to try to work in the personal office of a Member on Appropriations.

3.3 Committee analysis for some EA areas

Which Congressional committees are relevant from an EA perspective? As noted above, this depends heavily on your specific issue area and policy priorities (except for Appropriations: money always matters). Below, we will (very briefly) run through four areas — AI, biosecurity, animal welfare, and aid — that many EAs care about. For reference, here is the full list of Congressional committees for both houses.

The goal of this analysis is not only to help identify committees and Members that EAs could consider working for, but also to show the analysis’s logic so that others can critique or improve it, help keep it up-to-date, and extend it to other areas. Each example follows three steps: (1) identify (broad and illustrative[21]) policy priorities; (2) identify which federal agencies would play a role in implementing those priorities; and (3) identify the relevant authorization, oversight, and appropriations (sub)committees for those agencies. Similar analyses could and should be done (and may already exist) for other cause areas (e.g., climate change, criminal justice reform, growth-focused macroeconomic policy, etc.).

(Heads up: This section will list a bunch of committees and agencies, so it could quickly start feeling like an acronym soup. This may feel overwhelming at first, but learning to stay afloat in that soup is an essential part of life in DC and Congress — so consider it practice!)

Artificial intelligence

Reducing risks from AI is a big focus area for the EA community. Here we will focus on two illustrative categories of near-term AI action where Congress could conceivably play a positive role: (1) advancing technical AI safety and security and (2) shaping the US government’s international engagement. (A recent GovAI paper also discusses some other AI policy levers.)

R&D and TEVV investments. The US government has several agencies that could fund AI safety and security research and development (R&D), and several that could work on testing, evaluation, verification, and validation (TEVV) frameworks. On the R&D side, the main civilian research agency for AI has historically been the NSF, although the Department of Energy (DOE) also plays a significant role, especially on the hardware side (as reflected in the division of authorized funding in NAIIA, see Section 3.2). NIST, within the Department of Commerce, is often the lead agency on civilian standards development, and it has an active AI program. Various parts of the Department of Defense (DOD) and (at a smaller scale) the intelligence community (IC) either fund or perform a great deal of AI R&D, some of which is focused on safety and security (see e.g. DARPA’s AI work). Together with NIST, DOD is also traditionally the lead agency on AI TEVV research.[22]

Since AI R&D and TEVV activities are distributed across different agencies, many Congressional (sub)committees could be involved in increasing or reallocating AI funding. Moreover, as discussed in Section 3.2, funding has to be both authorized by an authorizing committee and appropriated by Appropriations.

  • Authorization: House Science and Senate Commerce (for NSF, parts of NIST, parts of DOE R&D); House Energy & Commerce (parts of NIST); Senate Energy & Natural Resources (parts of DOE); House and Senate Armed Services (for DOD)

  • Appropriations: Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (for NSF, NIST); Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development (for DOE); Subcommittee on Defense (for DOD and the IC)

International engagement and diffusion. A second important policy category where Congress could play a role is in shaping the international evolution of AI diffusion and deployment. This includes engagement in multilateral standards bodies to promote safe and secure AI adoption, or attendance at arms control meetings. These activities would likely be led by the State Department, in combination with technical experts from other agencies such as NIST (depending on the issue). The US government can also help prevent the widespread diffusion of potentially harmful AI technology; relevant policy tools include export, investment, visa, and publication controls. These are handled by a combination of departments, including State, Defense, Commerce, Treasury, and several science agencies. Various IC components are involved in monitoring potentially concerning AI developments abroad. (Here we will skip Appropriations, though of course any increased US government activity on this front may require additional funding.)

  • Authorization: House Foreign Affairs (for State and “dual-use” export controls); Senate Foreign Relations (for State); Senate Banking (for “dual-use” export controls); Senate Commerce and House Energy & Commerce (for NIST); House and Senate Intelligence (for the IC); House and Senate Judiciary (for visas/​immigration); House Oversight & Government Reform and Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs (for oversight of all of the above)

Biosecurity

Many EAs work on biosecurity, especially reducing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) such as large-scale pandemics. Because of COVID-19, these issues are poised to get a lot of Congressional attention in the next few years. Here, we will focus on three policy areas in particular: (1) biosecurity-related R&D investments, (2) domestic (US) pandemic prevention and preparedness, and (3) international engagement and intelligence. (Other issues, such as regulation of “dual-use research of concern,” are discussed here, here, and here; a recent Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense paper (Table 1) lists a broader set of relevant committees; and the following two sections, on alternative proteins and aid for global public health, also have biosecurity dimensions.)

R&D investments. Scientific and technological investments could substantially reduce GCBRs (for one overview of technology priorities, see the paper “Apollo Program for Biodefense”). Due to the wide-ranging nature of the problem, many federal government agencies are, or could be, involved in funding or performing related R&D. The primary ones are the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS, mainly through NIH/​NIAID and BARDA) and the DOD (mainly through DARPA and USAMRIID). (Smaller amounts of relevant funding also come through the Departments of Homeland Security [DHS] and Agriculture [USDA], IARPA, and NSF, among others.)

  • Authorization: House Energy & Commerce and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions [HELP] (for NIH and BARDA); House and Senate Armed Services (for DOD)

  • Appropriation: Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education, and Related Agencies (for NIH and BARDA); Subcommittee on Defense (for DOD)

Domestic prevention and preparedness. In addition to technical developments, local and national infrastructure also affect GCBRs, for example local pathogen and disease monitoring systems; therapeutics, vaccine, and PPE stockpiles; and outreach and emergency response infrastructure. Again, relevant responsibilities and authorities are distributed across the federal government. Several relevant agencies sit within HHS (e.g., ASPR, CDC, FDA). DHS runs the BioWatch program and FEMA, and USDA will play a role for zoonotic diseases.

  • Authorization: House Energy & Commerce and Senate HELP (for HHS); House Homeland Security and Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs (for DHS[23]); House and Senate Agriculture (for USDA)

  • Appropriation: Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education, and Related Agencies (for ASPR, CDC); Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies (for FDA and USDA); Subcommittee on Homeland Security (for DHS)

International engagement and intelligence. Several US government agencies are involved in building global pandemic monitoring capabilities (see also “Aid” below) and addressing threats from bioweapons programs. The State Department leads US engagement with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), among other relevant international bodies; the DOD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency runs the Biological Threat Reduction Program; and various intelligence agencies are involved in monitoring foreign biotech and bioweapons activities.

  • Authorization: Senate Foreign Relations (for State and BWC activities[24]); House and Senate Armed Services (for DOD); House and Senate Intelligence (for the IC)

  • Appropriation: Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (for State and the WHO); Subcommittee on Defense (for DOD and the IC)

Animal welfare and alternative proteins

Within animal welfare, two illustrative priorities are: (1) R&D investments in alternative proteins and (2) regulatory issues such as food labeling. (For other animal welfare and alternative protein policy ideas where Congress could play a role, see, e.g., here, here, here.)

R&D investment. As with AI and biosecurity, there are several departments and agencies with portfolios relevant to alternative protein science and technology. The USDA (through NIFA) and NSF have thus far funded most alternative protein research (and GFI’s R&D lobbying has mostly focused on these two agencies). Biomedical research dominates civilian US government R&D, and there are significant overlaps between regenerative medicine and cellular agriculture; this makes the NIH another possible funding vehicle. NASA and DOD are agencies whose missions could benefit from alternative protein methods, and could conceivably also channel resources toward specific technical challenges.[25]

  • Authorization: House and Senate Agriculture (for USDA/​NIFA), House Science and Senate Commerce (for NSF and NASA), House Energy & Commerce and Senate HELP (for NIH), House and Senate Armed Services (for DOD)

  • Appropriations: Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies (for USDA); Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (for NSF and NASA); Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (for NIH); Subcommittee on Defense (for DOD)

Regulation. Another set of priorities involve regulatory issues such as food labeling. Due to the dominance of agricultural interests, it seems unlikely that Congress could pass positive regulatory legislation in the short term.[26] However, as staff you could also work on oversight and “amplification” (e.g., through hearings) that could be helpful (see Section 1.1). At minimum, you could try to expose or spotlight bad behavior by companies or agencies. More ambitiously, you could pressure or provide cover for agencies to issue improved regulations under existing authorities or to halt harmful regulatory processes. Relevant regulatory authority mostly falls to either the USDA or FDA (or both), depending on the type of alternative protein. (Because these are predominantly regulatory issues, appropriations are not as relevant.)

  • Authorization: House and Senate Agriculture (oversight of USDA), House Energy & Commerce and Senate HELP (oversight of FDA)

Aid for global development and public health

When it comes to aid, most EA thinking focuses broadly on (1) how to increase the amount of money going to aid and (2) where and on what that money should be spent. There is still plenty of disagreement within the community on aid allocation, but specific ideas probably receive widespread support (e.g. increasing the share of global health funding going to pandemic preparedness to more than its current estimated level of 1%).

Since aid is mostly a matter of allocating funds, it should come as no surprise at this point that Appropriations once again looms large. Most US aid funding is channeled through the State Department, USAID, and related agencies; on global health specifically, the CDC also plays an important role.[27] Unfortunately, Congress has not been able to pass a State Department authorization bill for two decades (though it came close in 2020). This limits the ability of authorizing committee staff to steer aid-related policy, though it does not entirely eliminate opportunities for impact. For example, authorizing committees still have the ability to conduct oversight and investigations of existing programs (e.g., whether they’re complying with existing requirements for evidence-based decision-making on aid) or to generate media attention for certain problems or ideas. In practice, though, aid policy has recently mainly been set by Appropriations.[28]

  • Authorization: House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations (for State/​USAID); House Energy & Commerce and Senate HELP (for the CDC)

  • Appropriations: Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (for State and USAID); Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (for the CDC)

A note of caution

As discussed in Section 3.1, committee jurisdiction is very complex and politicized. Lines are subtle, differ by chamber, and are constantly redrawn based on a mix of precedent and power. Even experienced Congressional staffers struggle with jurisdictional questions. The analysis in this section was checked by at least one policy expert for each cause area, but many were uncertain about specific details, and the coverage is far from comprehensive. If these jurisdictional questions are relevant to an important decision (jobs, advocacy, etc.), be sure to double (or triple) check the analysis presented here.

3.4 Which members have an interest in your issue?

There are too many Members to analyze in the same level of detail as committees, and constant turnover means it is hard to keep track of all relevant Members. But we can walk through some heuristics for finding and assessing Members that you can apply yourself.

One thing you’ll want to look at in judging whether a Member might want — and be able — to make a serious difference on your issue is what committees they are on. Members typically try to serve on committees with jurisdiction that they (or their constituents) really care about. Committee membership is also helpful in leading on legislation and other activity. This is especially true if the Member is chair of a committee or subcommittee. If you are able to work for a relevant (sub)committee chair, you will probably have more opportunities for direct impact.

However, committee membership isn’t everything. Early in their tenure, Members won’t necessarily be on the committees that they want to end up on, so they might switch out of or onto a relevant committee later (committee assignments are revisited when a new Congress is sworn in, i.e. every two years).[29] Moreover, relevant committee memberships, while helpful, are not an absolute requirement for leading on an issue, especially in the Senate or for powerful individual Members (e.g., those in party leadership).

You could also look at a Member’s statements, proposed bills, and caucus memberships. As with committees, these signals are imperfect. Members frequently publish or make statements written by staff without understanding the content or caring about the topic. To assess whether a statement is a good indicator of interest, one rule of thumb is: the more detailed and off-the-cuff, the better (e.g., reading from notes at a hearing is poor signal, but a back-and-forth in a non-scripted setting is more meaningful). Bills are not necessarily much better — they are relatively costless to introduce, mostly written by staff, and often just glorified press releases (though, again, you could do some parsing: being the main sponsor of a detailed bill is a much better signal than being one of many co-sponsors on a short “messaging” bill).

Many issue areas also have a “caucus,” informal organizations of Senators and Representatives. There are hundreds of these and many are not particularly active or meaningful (you can browse the full list for some random laughs).[30] But membership does provide some signal of interest, and caucus co-chairs often have at least one staffer for whom the caucus issue is a dedicated part of their portfolio. Relevant examples include the Senate and House AI Caucus (co-chaired by Sens. Portman and Heinrich and Reps. Gonzalez and McNerney), the Congressional Biodefense Caucus (co-chaired by Rep. Eshoo and, until her recent retirement, Rep. Brooks), and the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus (co-chaired by Reps. Blumenauer and Buchanan).

Combine all these signals and you usually get a decent initial picture. However, most of the time, a conversation with someone who’s worked in or around Congress on your topic is a much more efficient way to get a good list of interested Members along with relevant contextual information. If you are considering working in Congress, there are almost certainly several EAs in DC who could give you helpful background and introductions (see Post #2).

Finally, note that Member interest, while important, is neither sufficient nor necessary for policy impact. It isn’t sufficient because if they are not on the right committees or don’t have enough influence, they may simply not have the ability to act on their interest. It isn’t necessary because, if you work for them as a staffer, you could convince them that it’s important. When a Member trusts a staffer, they will often either listen and become interested in new topics, or delegate initiative and allow a staffer to (behind the scenes) drive an agenda (especially if the issue is adjacent to their current agenda and/​or not politically salient). Finding a Member with pre-existing interest is certainly a big plus, but a lack of (demonstrated) interest shouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker.

Next steps

If you got this far and are not yet totally revolted by the idea of working in Congress, consider reading Post #2. In contrast to this post, which explained broad features of Congressional work, Post #2 will provide a more nitty-gritty overview of office structure, lay out specific job options across different levels of seniority, and provide a step-by-step overview of the job search process. It also links to a Google Form through which you can get in touch with DC EAs for advice and other resources.

Endnotes


  1. Good books include Act of Congress (a pedagogical but narrative book on Congress that tells the story of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reforms), Surviving Inside Congress (a guide to Congress written for staffers), Congress Overwhelmed (an edited volume on Congress’s declining governance capacity and what can be done about it), and biographies of prominent Congressional leaders such as Master of the Senate or Pelosi. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) website has excellent resources on most aspects of Congressional work, including under its “Legislative & Budget Process” and “Congressional Administration & Elections” tags. GovTrack tracks and analyzes Congressional activity, for example in its annual Member report cards. New America’s “Congressional Brain Drain” report has useful staff-related statistics. The podcast Quick Questions About Congress with Kilmer has one member of the House interviewing other members, and provides a fun peek into the lives of representatives. Another podcast, Understanding Congress, provides a more pedagogical overview on different aspects of Congress. To get a feel for the daily news cycle, follow the three Capitol Hill-focused outlets (Politico, Roll Call, and The Hill) and newsletters like Politico Huddle or (more in the weeds) First Branch Forecast. If you really want to go wild, check out this recent PhD dissertation about Congressional staffers or one of David Mayhew’s syllabi on Congress. Further helpful sources on specific aspects of Congressional work are linked in other endnotes. Tactical resources for getting jobs on the Hill are included in Post #2. ↩︎

  2. The main omission from this list is constituent service, which takes up a significant portion of Member offices’ time and resources but which is not especially EA-relevant. ↩︎

  3. Technically speaking, appropriations bills are also legislation, and “appropriation” is thus not strictly different from “legislation.” But, due to its importance, most practical guides to Congress discuss appropriations separately from other legislative activities. ↩︎

  4. A 2012 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation found that House members report spending 35% of their time on “legislative/​policy work” while in Washington, DC, compared to about 12% of their time back in their districts. Members typically spend about half of their time outside of DC, so averaging those proportions together gives ~25% of their time overall. ↩︎

  5. “When Congress takes on a big issue like financial regulatory reform, the members of the committees principally responsible for the legislation like to feel that they play an important role. But unless Frank [the House Financial Services committee Chair] decided to defer to a colleague on a particular issue, which he did only rarely, the members had less influence on the legislative product than did … the committee staff” (Kaiser, Act of Congress, p. 156). ↩︎

  6. Assuming we are talking about a mid-level role where you can have a direct impact (see Post #2 for what those are). For internships and junior roles, your main focus will of course be CV- and skill-building. ↩︎

  7. Calculating how many bills are actually passed or enacted is complicated because so many of them are either folded into “omnibus” legislation or added as amendments to other must-pass bills. Therefore, the number of standalone bills that become law (potentially in changed form) is probably higher than this data suggests, though how much higher is unclear. (Then again, ~15-20% of passed legislation in recent years has involved renaming post offices, so not all successful bills are significant either.) ↩︎

  8. Much of this background is also helpful in interpreting the significance (or lack thereof) of different policy developments. For example, the mere fact that a Member introduces a bill on AI does not mean that they are a meaningful player in AI policy or that the proposal is significant. At minimum, you’ll want to check whether they are on a relevant committee, are in the majority party, and appear to have leadership support — and even if all of those things are true, the idea might still not go anywhere. Individual senators often have more influence (or at least more power to block things they dislike) but the same questions apply. ↩︎

  9. The third type of Congressional staff is “leadership staff,” who work for the leadership of their respective parties and manage floor procedure, party caucus coordination, and so forth. Leadership staff can wield a lot of influence, but EAs who do not already work in Congress (the target audience for this post) have no chance of becoming leadership staff without working as personal or committee staff first, so we will not discuss leadership staff here. ↩︎

  10. Strand et al., Surviving Inside Congress, 5th Ed, p. 50: “The biggest challenge for [personal office] legislative staff is constituent mail. … Some House offices receive up to 100,000 communications per year from their constituents. Senate offices can receive many times that. As a new legislative correspondent or legislative assistant in the House, answering constituent mail may very well take up 50 to 75 percent of your day.” This might sound off-putting, but while most of this is not particularly exciting work, it is not entirely administrative either — some correspondence involves researching and formulating the office’s policy position on questions important to constituents. ↩︎

  11. Which is not to stay there are no differences between Senate and House committee staff experiences. For example, Senate committee staff sometimes spend a lot of their time vetting government or judicial nominees, something House committee staff rarely have to do. ↩︎

  12. The majority-minority difference in the ability to get legislation enacted is smaller when there is a split Congress, i.e. when the two houses are controlled by different parties. ↩︎

  13. This example is based on Kaiser, Act of Congress, pp. 88-89 (and throughout). ↩︎

  14. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive source that maps all Congressional committees to all federal agencies in a single place, so you will have to dig around on a case-by-case basis. ↩︎

  15. Some sense of prestige and power can be gotten from looking at committee classification systems. In the Senate, committees are divided into “A,” “B,” and “C” committees, with A further broken out (for Democrats only) by four “Super” A’s. There are limits on how many committees in classes A and B a Senator may serve on. In the House, some committees are “exclusive” whereas others are not. ↩︎

  16. In recent years, this step in the budget process is increasingly bypassed, or budget resolutions are adopted for multiple years. ↩︎

  17. Note that this is the process for the ~35% of the federal budget consisting of discretionary spending (about $1.3 trillion in FY2019); the remaining ~65% ($2.7 trillion in FY2019) is mandatory spending (e.g., Medicare) and not subject to annual revision. Those who wish to go deeper can start with relevant CRS reports, e.g., “Authorizations and the Appropriations Process” and “The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction.” Since Congress is not involved in it, this section also ignores the presidential side of the budget process. For a more general overview, see The Federal Budget Process: Politics, Policy, Process by Allen Schick (available on JSTOR). ↩︎

  18. A few authorization bills still pass every time, most notably the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is considered “must-pass” and relatively bipartisan. Due to their “must-pass” status, these bills are increasingly filled with amendments of questionable relevance to the departments and issues that are supposed to be at their core. Working on a committee in charge of a functional authorization process (e.g., Armed Services for the NDAA) is a good way to increase your chances of having an impact. ↩︎

  19. Technically, whether an agency is “authorized” is not a binary question. These four places are generally named as examples of unauthorized agencies (e.g., here and here), but many individual components or activities of, for example, DHS have in fact been reauthorized recently. There is also a distinction between unauthorized programs/​agencies and unauthorized appropriations. For background, see the CBO’s annual overview of unauthorized appropriations. ↩︎

  20. Strand et al., Surviving Inside Congress, 5th Ed, p. 170 ↩︎

  21. I will use policy examples that not every EA may agree with; the point here is not to endorse or litigate those policies, but simply to illustrate how to think through which specific Congressional offices play a role in which issues. For space reasons, I do not go into detail for any of the policies. ↩︎

  22. Several other agencies funding or performing AI-related R&D and TEVV are listed in the White House’s “2016–2019 Progress Report: Advancing Artificial Intelligence R&D” (see Table 1). ↩︎

  23. The Homeland Security committees technically oversee DHS, but some other committees also have relevant equities. For example, House Transportation and Infrastructure by precedent “owns” the Stafford Act, the most important legislation related to emergency management and thus much of FEMA, even though FEMA is now part of DHS. Because it is a young agency, jurisdictional questions related to DHS are often even more messy than those for other agencies. ↩︎

  24. Senate Foreign Relations is more important to BWC-related developments than its House counterpart (Foreign Affairs) because of its role in ratifying treaties; the House generally has less influence in this domain. ↩︎

  25. Some of the first US government studies on alternative proteins actually came out of NASA (on relevance to NASA’s mission, see here). This is a great example of unintuitive links that could be exploited for impact by enterprising Congressional or agency staffers. ↩︎

  26. Much US regulatory work also happens at the state level rather than at the federal level. ↩︎

  27. Other federal agencies also have foreign assistance budgets (e.g., DOD, Treasury), but these typically don’t involve issue portfolios that EAs focus on, so we won’t get into them here. ↩︎

  28. To see what this looks like, check the SFOPs Appropriations Report, Title VII (“General Provisions”). ↩︎

  29. The political calculations behind committee assignments are very complicated and secretive, so it is hard to predict in advance whether a Member will ultimately end up on a prestigious committee that they’re not already on. Who is elevated to be (sub)committee chair is similarly complex, although seniority generally plays a significant role in such decisions. Rules for committee membership and leadership assignments also differ across both chambers and parties. For more background, see two CRS reports that lay out the formal rules for the House and the Senate. ↩︎

  30. Confusingly, the full slate of party members is also often referred to as a “caucus” (as in the “Senate Democratic caucus”). Some other caucuses are ideological (e.g., the “Blue Dog” caucus for conservative Democrats or the “Freedom Caucus” for Tea Party Republicans), and a very few caucuses (e.g., the Congressional Black Caucus) are influential enough to have full-time staff. But most “caucus” groups are informal and centered around specific issues (including caucuses for bourbon, cement, and Montenegro). ↩︎