Congress: Heal Thyself

Rep. Bill Pascrell writes that congress is ‘functioning like an abacus seeking to decipher string theory.’

You may have seen video clips of members of Congress making fools of themselves during a hearing they held with leaders from Silicon Valley. Here is how Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) summarized what happened.

One of my colleagues in the House asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the workings of an iPhone — a rival Apple product. Another colleague asked Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg, “If you’re not listening to us on the phone, who is?” One senator was flabbergasted to learn that Facebook makes money from advertising. Over hours of testimony, my fellow members of Congress struggled to grapple with technologies used daily by most Americans and with the functions of the Internet itself. Given an opportunity to expose the most powerful businesses on Earth to sunlight and scrutiny, the hearings did little to answer tough questions about the tech titans’ monopolies or the impact of their platforms.

Some of the ignorance on display was certainly a function of age and the political agenda of Republicans on the committee. But Pascrell used that summary to introduce a problem that Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote about here at the Washington Monthly over four years ago in an article titled “The Big Lobotomy: How Republicans Made Congress Stupid.” Here is how Pascrell described what happened (with a link to the piece by Glastris and Edwards):

Our decay as an institution began in 1995, when conservatives, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), carried out a full-scale war on government. Gingrich began by slashing the congressional workforce by one-third. He aimed particular ire at Congress’s brain, firing 1 of every 3 staffers at the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. He defunded the Office of Technology Assessment, a tech-focused think tank. Social scientists have called those moves Congress’s self-lobotomy, and the cuts remain largely unreversed.

Gingrich’s actions didn’t stop with Congress’s mind: He went for its arms and legs, too, as he dismantled the committee system, taking power from chairmen and shifting it to leadership. His successors as speaker have entrenched this practice. While there was a 35 percent decline in committee staffing from 1994 to 2014, funding over that period for leadership staff rose 89 percent.

With sources of independent research cut off and the committee system dismantled, it is not surprising who stepped in to fill the void.

Congress does not have the resources to counter the growth of corporate lobbying. Between 1980 and 2006, the number of organizations in Washington with lobbying arms more than doubled, and lobbying expenditures between 1983 and 2013 ballooned from $200 million to $3.2 billion. A stunning 2015 study found that corporations now devote more resources to lobby Congress than Congress spends to fund itself…In 2016 in the House, there were just 1,300 aides on all committees combined, a number that includes clerical and communications workers. Our expert policy staffs are dwarfed by the lobbying class.

The practical impact of this disparity is impossible to overstate as lobbyists flood our offices with information on issues and legislation — information on which many lawmakers have become reliant.

All of that is happening at a time when the issues with which Congress must grapple are becoming more complex.

The congressional hearings on big tech showcased my colleagues’ inability to wrap their heads around basic technologies. But our challenges don’t stop at Silicon Valley. Biomedical research, CRISPR, space exploration, artificial intelligence, election security, self-driving cars and, most pressingly, climate change are also on Congress’s plate.

And we are functioning like an abacus seeking to decipher string theory.

With Democrats once again in a majority, it is critical that this issue be addressed. There are some positive signs on the horizon.

The creation in the House rules of a Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress in this new session is a terrific beginning — and a signal that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) understand the importance of these issues. Providing capital and staff to the institution should be a major priority in the 116th Congress.

This isn’t something that will grab headlines or appeal to most Americans who aren’t interested in the inner workings of our democracy. But anyone who is committed to reducing the influence of lobbyists and tackling the pressing issues of the future (ie, climate change) needs to make this a priority.

The ancient Greek proverb, “physician, heal thyself” came to mind when I read what Rep. Pascrell wrote.

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus refers to it in his Prometheus Bound, where the chorus comments to the suffering Prometheus, “like an unskilled doctor, fallen ill, you lose heart and cannot discover by which remedies to cure your own disease.”

In other words, before Congress can effectively address the issues facing Americans, they need to heal themselves.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .