We Could Fix Congress, If Republicans Would Let Us

In digesting Lee Drutman and Steven Teles’s article in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, I came across the same old familiar difficulty. It’s pretty easy to identify problems, but it’s hard to convince the Republicans to be partners in solving any of them. We’re lucky if they aren’t hell-bent on making them worse. And, as Drutman and Teles recognize, this is pretty much the case when it comes to addressing the self-lobotomization Congress has given itself, causing an over-reliance on outside experts and lobbyists.

There’s a reason why Boehner, like Gingrich before him, would want to cut the staff of the very institution he controls. Doing so sends an empty but attention-grabbing signal to conservative base voters that the GOP leadership is serious about cutting government. Moreover, the decades-long diminishment of nonpartisan expertise in Congress has gone hand in hand with the rise of conservative power. Ideologically or lobbyist-driven legislation moves faster through the process when there are fewer knowledgeable, nonpartisan staffers asking inconvenient questions.

Convincing Republicans to reverse Congress’s institutional brain drain, then, will be an uphill fight. And doing it in a way that reduces the political-machine-like control over staff that lawmakers enjoy will meet resistance from both parties. That said, it is not impossible to imagine scenarios in which Congress would make moves in the direction we suggest.

As Ed said yesterday, Congress doesn’t have to be this stupid, but the problem is that powerful conservative interests want us this stupid. Look at our public discourse. Have you ever seen anything so dumb?

Drutman and Teles provide us with two thin threads of hope. First, that like Dr. No himself (former Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma), the Tea Party brigade might mature a little bit after a couple of terms in office and realize that they need bigger staffs in order to effectively attack waste and abuse. Second, that the Congressional Republicans might take a selfish interest in bolstering the power of their institution, especially if time goes by with them in control of the two chambers but perpetually shut out of the White House.

Personally, I’m not optimistic, but I definitely would put more money on the latter scenario playing out than the former.

At least in theory, a smarter better-staffed Congress would be one way to counter the influence of corporate money in politics, but if Republicans continue to control Congress we may never get to test that theory. And, in any case, what makes anyone think that the GOP has a problem with corporate money in politics?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.