Make Congress Great Again

Lee Drutman has a new piece up at Vox that hits at a theme he’s been promoting for a while now, including in an article he did for our June/July/August 2015 issue. To understand his basic point, it’s helpful to look at a few numbers. For example, “in 1949, 81 percent of congressional hearings were related to legislation; in 2005, just 11 percent of congressional hearings were.” In 1975, the Senate employed 1,277 committee staff, but by 2015 that number was down to 888, a 30 percent decline. And the medium salary for a legislative director has declined by 13% in the House and 11% in the Senate since 2009.

It’s true that the Republican-led Congress during the Obama administration was a uniquely Do-Nothing outfit, but these trends have been forming for a much longer period of time. Drutman is good at documenting how much less Congress does of substance than they used to do. They no longer have the manpower or the budget to produce their own research or do many investigations.

One way to demonstrate this is to look at the Senate website’s list of “Notable Senate Investigations.”

Look at this list and you can absorb the potentially awesome power of congressional oversight. The 1940s Truman committee hearings that called out war profiteering and probably saved taxpayers billions of dollars; the 1950-’51 Kefauver committee hearings that confronted organized crime in America and brought it to life with televised live proceedings in 1951 that an estimated 30 million Americans watched; the 1973-’74 Watergate hearings that set the stage for Nixon’s impeachment; the 1975 Church committee (named for Sen. Frank Church) that exposed wide-ranging domestic spying abuses by the CIA and FBI.

But follow the timeline forward to the present, and since 1975 only one more investigation shows up on the list: the 1987-’89 Iran-Contra hearings. That leaves an almost three-decade gap in notable investigations, the longest in the timeline.

I guess investigating Monica Lewinsky didn’t make the cut. And, Drutman points out “the 9/11 commission and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission are not included on the list. But that’s presumably because they were both effectively outsourced.”

Congress has made itself stupid and blind. They have small staffs that don’t stick around for more than a couple of years because the pay is lousy and getting worse. This has made lawmakers much more dependent of lobbyists, a definitionally self-interested lot whose research can be valuable but should never be relied upon.

For Drutman, this is no way to stand up to a strong Executive Branch, particularly one as filled with radical Trumpists.

A well-resourced Congress may be the one thing standing in the way of a Trump administration doing whatever the heck it wants. A doubling or even a tripling of congressional staff budgets — especially if it goes to oversight — would be money very, very well spent.

There are some Republicans who want to increase the power of the legislative branch. I don’t get the sense that they necessarily understand how that can be done. Most of them are going to have a hard time facing up to the fact their party’s decades-long attack on federal workers and federal expertise had the unintended side effect of weakening Congress and strengthening the president. And that’s really the only thing making this hard to fix.

I don’t know that they’ll ever listen to Drutman, but they should. And I’m glad he keeps trying to convince them.

Martin Longman

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