Congress and Institutional Competence

The best thing I’ve read today on the legislative branch comes from a very good article in the Washington Times, of all places. It bemoans the plight of young, inexperienced, and overworked congressional staffers, who are paid in pencil shavings. The consequences are about what one would expect:

While senators make $174,000, staff assistants and legislative correspondents — by far the most common positions in the Senate — have median pay of $30,000 and $35,000, respectively, significantly less than Senate janitors and a fairly low salary for college graduates in a city as expensive as Washington…

It means that young workers have proximity to enormous power while surviving on a meager budget — dual forces that come together to push congressional staffers through the “revolving door” to highly paid K Street lobbyists. In the revolving door, former congressional staff and members use their personal connections and insider knowledge to attempt to pull the levers of power on behalf of a paying client. A former congressional staffer is among the most valuable assets a company desiring legislative change can buy…

But it also means that staffers are often forced to rely on lobbyists while they still work for Congress, sometimes for the purest of reasons: While lobbyists with decades of experience in energy policy or other arcane areas are common, such depth of experience is nearly nonexistent on Capitol Hill. Though 10 years of experience in a home-state office, which handles constituent services and other less stressful concerns, is not rare, a person with a decade of experience is few and far between in Washington.

There’s even a good section about Newt Gingrich’s boneheaded axing of Congress’ official science advisory agency:

As policy questions more frequently hinge on the nuances of technical matters, members of Congress are operating without the researchers and topical experts on which they have relied to cast informed votes.

With the shuttering of the Office of Technology Assessment, a 200-member congressional support agency that closed in 1995 under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, members who are largely lawyers and rhetorical masters are asked to differentiate between competing proposals that only scientists might be able to evaluate effectively.

When it comes to the private sector, conservatives are deeply invested in the idea that you have to pay people enough to attract good employees, especially at the tippy-top. If liberals complain about Jamie Dimon’s umpteen gazillion-dollar salary, some neckless lickspittle on CNBC will rush to point out that if they paid him even a quarter less, then by gum he will up and go Galt on us, quitting to run the other world’s largest bank, and the economy won’t have Dimon’s vitally necessary banking expertise.

I used to think that perhaps we could agree that, aside from debates about which things government should be doing, at least when we agree that it should be doing something (like, say, preventing disease outbreaks), it should do it as well as possible. But when it comes to the federal government, paying the people actually running the guts of the legislative machinery doesn’t seem to count next to the knee-jerk Republican hatred of government generally, and increasingly, any knowledge or expertise whatsoever.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.