Making Congress More Stupider

You may recall Paul Glatris and Haley Sweetland Edwards’ cover article, “The Big Lobotomy,” from the June/July/August 2014 issue of the Washington Monthly. It documented how congressional Republicans had worked for decades to reduce Congress’ capacity for intelligent decision-making–while making it vastly more dependent on lobbyists and special interests–via reductions in appropriations for staff and committees and research initiatives.

The article clearly made an impression on Harry Stein and Ethan Gurwitz of the Center for American Progress, who cited it in reporting the latest self-lobotimizing effort in Congress in the FY 2016 appropriations process:

As Congress writes spending bills that attempt to implement the first year of its budget resolution, it is clear that the legislative branch intends to continue operating with one hand tied behind its back.

On June 12, 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the fiscal year 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which would cut funding for the legislative branch by 17 percent from inflation-adjusted FY 2010 levels. The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which makes roughly the same overall funding cuts as the Senate bill. These cuts may seem like a good way to score cheap political points at a time when Congress is deeply unpopular, but in the long run, they only increase congressional dysfunction and make the federal government less efficient and responsive to the American people.

The fact remains that the legislative branch includes much more than just members of Congress. When members vote to slash legislative spending, they undermine the professional staff and independent agencies that make it possible for Congress to oversee federal programs and understand complex policy questions. As funding and staffing levels for these legislative branch institutions have declined, Congress has become increasingly dependent on privately funded lobbyists and outside policy experts.

As the CAP article notes, the cuts include those unique legislative branch entities the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office–both essential for understanding and reforming government spending.

The House’s FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill cuts the GAO budget by 15.4 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level, while the Senate bill cuts GAO funding by 14.9 percent. If every $1 cut from the GAO equates to $15.20 of unexposed waste, fraud, and abuse, cuts of this magnitude could result in about $1.4 billion in missed opportunities for government savings, or between $7 billion and $8 billion based on the larger return-on-investment ratio of 80 to 1.

Even for conservatives who want a smaller federal government, Glastris and Edwards note that “making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller.” It just makes government less effective.

If you don’t really believe in any legitimate mission for the federal government beyond national defense, of course, this this is a distinction without a difference. But the rest of us are saddled with big, dumb government.

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.