1994 and the Congressional Brain Drain

In the sweeping account of congressional self-lobotomization penned by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, the 1994 elections and their aftermath play a particularly important role. Newly elected Speaker Newt Gingrich (echoed to a lesser but still significant extent by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole) inaugurated major cutbacks in professional committee and support staff, made committee and subcommittee chairs subservient to his own anti-Washington agenda, and encouraged a culture of congressional self-contempt in which Republicans were at war with, rather than seeking to oversee and improve, the operations of the federal government.

As a federal-state relations staffer (and former U.S. Senate staffer) in Georgia at the time, I was in a position to witness this, the most enduring part of the so-called Republican Revolution, at close range. And what I’d mainly add to the Glastris-Edwards account is that Gingrich’s changes occurred in conjunction with the termination of forty years of continuous Democratic control of the House. Literally decades of accumulated committee staff expertise were wiped out, not just by the congressional budget cutbacks but by the sharply reduced share allocated to Democrats, along with radically diminished authority. I joked darkly at the time that SWAT teams were being sent in to roust longtime committee staffers from their lairs, from whence they emerged blinking into the harsh sunlight to access Red Cross vans dispensing coffee and bagels.

Much of this expertise seeped into the rapidly emerging lobbying shop and think tank world that Glastris and Edwards write about which gradually supplanted professional staff as Congress’ “brains.” But quite a bit was simply lost. That wasn’t all bad; I was among those at the time who felt a bit of schadenfreude at the deposition of lordly subcommittee staff directors who ruled their corner of the “iron triangle” of congressional, agency and advocacy interests resisting the reform of “their” federal programs. But they were often replaced not by fresh air but by hot air and dead air, as young conservative ideologues and industry-association hacks assumed control and exhibited their own style of arrogance mixed with ignorance. That this was all being engineered by Gingrich, a Georgian whom I had closely watched since his days as a famously erratic former history professor and Rockefeller Republican turned ideological warrior and political boss, made the whole thing especially bizarre and worrisome. And we’re still dealing with the consequences.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.