When Democrats assume control of the House on January 3rd, they will have $129 million more to spend on staff than their predecessors in the 115th Congress did—money they can use to hire more personnel to, among other things, investigate the Trump administration.
Few people outside Congress know about this gift that Nancy Pelosi and company get to open next month—and even fewer are aware of the Washington Monthly’s role in making it happen. So, if you’ll permit a victory lap, here’s the story.
Four years ago, we published a cover story, titled “The Big Lobotomy,” which showed how today’s congressional gridlock and ineptitude can be traced to Newt Gingrich’s mid-‘90s revolution—in particular, his decision to radically reduce the number of congressional staffers and to centralized power in the leadership. Gingrich’s changes largely destroyed serious deliberation and oversight in Congress and led to an outsourcing of policy development to lobbyists and ideological think tanks. Congress lost its ability to think independently.
Soon after “The Big Lobotomy” came out, the Hewlett Foundation used it as a key source document in launching the Madison Initiative, a $50 million annual grant-making effort to encourage congressional and electoral reform. The Washington Monthly became one of the Madison Initiative’s first grantees and a hub for writers, scholars, and activists, both liberal and conservative, who have made the case that Congress should increase its budget for staff to boost its ability to deliberate and provide oversight. Two of our regular contributors, Lee Drutman of New America and Kevin Kosar of the R Street Institute, formed a group to hold briefings on the Hill directly making this case to members and staffers on both sides of the aisle, as did the group Demand Progress run by the pioneering researcher-activist, Daniel Schuman. They found champions, including Republicans like Senator Mike Lee and Representative Kevin Yoder who, together with Democrats such as Representative Tim Ryan, got the funding increase for House and Senate staff—including for paid internships—into an appropriations bill Donald Trump signed in September.
This gives Democrats in the new Congress a lot more power. Staff are crucial for conducting the hearings and investigations necessary to hold the executive accountable, as well as for serious policymaking that isn’t outsourced to lobbyists. Both tasks will be essential if Democrats are to use their majority to help pull the country back from the brink of Trump-induced disaster. And in the long run, a well-staffed Congress is a more functional one, regardless of which party is in power.
If you think the Washington Monthly’s kind of high-impact journalism is valuable and important, there’s something you can do to help: make a donation during our year-end fundraising drive. In fact, do it right now. Give whatever you can—$10, $50, $1,000—before December 31 and your contribution will be matched, dollar for dollar, thanks to a generous challenge grant we’ve received from NewsMatch. We’re a nonprofit, meaning we couldn’t generate original ideas that make government work better without your support. (It also means your donation is tax-deductible.) As a token of our gratitude, if you give $50 or more, you’ll receive a free one-year subscription to the print edition of the Washington Monthly.
And who knows: that $50 just might turn into $129 million. It wouldn’t be the first time.