As you have no doubt heard by now, the supercommittee failed. So did the Obama-Boehner negotiations that preceded it, and the Biden-Cantor negotiations that preceded that. Those efforts failed because the principals — and the political bases they represent — couldn’t come to an agreement. What chance they did have was almost entirely because of the staff scurrying in the background.
The idea that a handful of politicians, few of whom have any formal background in economics or budget analysis, were the ones doing the heavy policy lifting, is laughable. They’re in the room to make the final decisions. In some cases, they’re there to show that they and their party are taking the negotiations seriously. It’s common to hear stories of bored legislators tapping their feet through these sessions like schoolchildren waiting to be released for recess.
But behind the scenes were dozens of staff members putting in long nights and giving up weekends to try to find something, anything, that could lead to an agreement. The Congressional Budget Office was offering nonpartisan, detailed estimates on the costs of various proposals. The Congressional Research Service was sending out clear, detailed summaries of the provisions under consideration. Amid seemingly endless partisanship and polarization, the work of congressional support staff is, in most cases, an oasis of professionalism.
Which is perhaps why some of the Republican presidential candidates have begun attacking it.
‘Reactionary Socialist Institution’
During a speech this week on Social Security reform, Newt Gingrich called the Congressional Budget Office “a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated.”
It’s tempting to ignore this. Gingrich, after all, calls policies, people and institutions “socialist” with such gleeful abandon that it’s worth wondering whether he knows any other adjectives. In the more sober sectors of the Republican Party, the CBO is well respected. Representative Paul Ryan, perhaps the most influential Republican on budget matters, opened a hearing of the Budget Committee in September by saying, “I don’t agree with everything CBO produces, but I do think CBO strives to provide us with nonpartisan, independent analysis to help us do our jobs.”
Gingrich himself has been complimentary to the CBO in the past. In 1995, he bragged, “We’re still very proud of the fact that — as a team — House and Senate Republicans passed the first balanced budget in a generation. . . . We did it honestly, using the Congressional Budget Office, which was tough.”
But Gingrich is a weather vane. He’s turned against congressional staff because he sees an electoral upside in doing so. So do some others. Texas Governor Rick Perry, for instance, released a plan to cut the size of congressional staffs and turn “member of Congress” into a part-time position. Together, the policies would ensure that senators and representatives, who have little time to study the issues themselves and would have fewer staff members to rely on, would lean more heavily on lobbyists.
Indeed, Perry’s plan shares a basic flaw with Gingrich’s: By taking analytical resources away from Congress, they virtually force Congress to rely on the numbers and expertise of outside interest groups and lobbyists. They would deprofessionalize Congress, making it easier for ideologues to escape correction and for moneyed interests to work their will.
Most Americans, I think, agree that Congress is plenty reliant on lobbyists already, and could frankly do with a bit more evidence and a bit less ideology. Indeed, for all that I admire the work of congressional staff members and believe that many get a bad rap as part of a much-loathed institution, they bring much of it on themselves — and contribute to mistrust of their colleagues — by frequently leaving Congress to work for lobbying firms and other influence peddlers.
To address that, Steve Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, wants to build on the success of agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the quality of the committee staff by creating a congressional system more akin to the civil service.
“The important distinction,” Teles said, “is whether they’re in for the long haul and committed to the institution itself or whether they know they have the possibility of just getting kicked out every time the other side wins an election and, as such, they’re always thinking about what their next gig should be.”
Congress has been so unpopular for so long that its members have mostly tuned out the public opprobrium. Somehow, a body that’s supposed to be responsive to the American people manages to conduct business as usual despite a 9 percent approval rating. This irritates Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who thinks his colleagues should take the public’s deep disgust more seriously. He had his staff work up a chart comparing Congress’s poll numbers with other unpopular institutions and figures.
Congress, it turns out, is more unpopular than the Internal Revenue Service (40 percent), Richard Nixon during Watergate (29 percent), the banks (23 percent), or the U.S. turning into a communist country (11 percent). It ties Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez (9 percent). But it does beat Fidel Castro (5 percent). This might be the first time Fidel has ever done the United States Congress a favor.
So on this Thanksgiving, at a moment when public impressions of Congress are near their nadir, I want to give thanks for the staff members who work every day to redeem a flawed and dysfunctional institution. And with Christmas right around the corner, it would be nice if politicians gave them reforms to make that job easier, rather than trying to saddle them with cuts and restrictions that will make it impossible.