Building Up Resistance to Corruption in Congress

It’s becoming rather hard to deny that the ancient and honorable cause of political reform, as typified by the ancient and honorable fight to reduce the influence of money on politics and government, has all but declared defeat. So long as the Supreme Court continues to regard money as protected political speech, there’s not much that can be done about the “supply side” of campaign contributions and other political spending that distorts (when it does not actually purchase) congressional decisionmaking, regardless of which party is in charge.

But there’s more than one way to skin a lobbyist. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation and Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University propose a different approach that is essentially a response to the self-imposed “lobotomy” of Congress that Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote about at WaMo last year. The idea is to begin building up the legislative branch’s capacity of analysis and make it independent of the political complexion of Congress at any given moment. It won’t happen overnight, but then the self-debilitation that has made Congress dependent on lobbyists and on staff who are past and future lobbyists took a while to develop as well.

What would we need to do if we were serious about rebuilding Congress? The first priority should be making working for Congress a long-term career, where staff can invest in real policy knowledge and also get to know the players and the histories in a way that can make them effective. They need to develop long-term incentives that align with long-term institutional success, rather than seeing a job in Congress as a short-term stop on the way to something else.

Conservatives are on to something when they say that liberals are too quick to solve problems by throwing money at them. But creating a primary career track for congressional staff is a solution that could actually wind up saving taxpayers money in the long run by adding some much-needed oversight to some of what government does, and getting better value by enacting smarter policy. We know that is the case in federal purchasing, where the declining number and quality of federal procurement officials has led to a ballooning of the cost of contractors. It is folly to pay bottom-tier salaries and expect top-tier results.

Congress doesn’t have to pay lobbyist-level salaries, since staff jobs, especially if reformed in the way we suggest, offer experiences and opportunities that can’t be had even on K Street—close, trusted, day-in/day-out relationships with lawmakers, being inside the room when the big decisions are made, and shaping the laws of the land based on your best judgment of the public interest rather than the interest of some client. These are powerful attractions that lead idealistic young people to flood Congress with resumes year after year and make many former staffers wistful. But if we want to keep capacity from seeping out of Congress once that initial burst of idealism confronts the high living costs of Washington, we need to pay our wonks enough that the satisfactions of their jobs aren’t automatically outweighed by the monetary advantages of “going downtown.” That means increasing salaries above the entry level, and creating a generous pension program for senior staff to encourage longevity.

As Drutman and Teles note, the most serious problem is with the committee staff who play a hugely disproportionate role in drafting and determining the fate of legislation. I know that in my days in the Senate back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, committee staff were sometimes highly trained professionals and sometimes hacks from the home state of the chairman who totally depended on lobbyists. It was strictly up to the chairmen to decide which path to take, and the better committee staff did tend to move on before long, and a chairman’s election defeat–or a switch in party control–could wreak havoc. That all needs to change.

Let’s double the committee staff, and triple the money available for salaries. The committee would hire all the new staff we are calling for, and the jobs would be merit-based, high-paying positions. Half of the staff would work for the committee, under the direction of whoever was chair. But each congressional member of the committee would have one committee policy staffer detailed to her office on a two-year basis, to help the member with committee issues. Committee staff would go back and forth over time between working exclusively for the committee and working for particular members.

Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats.

There’s lots more to chew over in this important article. But the authors’ key insight is the main takeaway: even with partisan and ideological forces being ascendent, Congress does not to have to be as stupid as it is, and lobbyists and advocacy shops don’t have to be as powerful as they are. At the margins where important things still happen and important mistakes are still made, this matters.

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.