Last September, as they scrambled to decide on one final ultimatum before shutting down the federal government, Republican House leaders came up with what seemed like an odd demand: to strip their own staff of health care benefits.
At the time, staffers reacted to the news with a mixture of despair and disbelief. “It was like getting sucker-punched by your boss,” one aide told me. “Everyone was thinking, What’s the point? How is screwing us going to help you?”
The dubious logic behind the House Republicans’ demand can be traced back to a contested provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the gutting of which was the price the Republicans were demanding for agreeing to fund the government. The provision requires employees of the U.S. Congress, including members and their staffs, to buy insurance on the new health care exchanges, while still allowing them to receive subsidies from their employer. Over the course of more than a year, ideologues at several conservative think tanks, especially the Tea Party-friendly Heritage Foundation, which was pushing for the shutdown, managed to put an imaginative spin on the provision, convincing the conservative world that members and their staff were getting a sneaky, backroom deal, a “special exemption from Obamacare.”
In fact, had the Republicans’ desired language passed, congressional personnel would have become the only employees in America whose employer (in their case, the federal government) was explicitly forbidden from contributing to their health care—a blow that, in all likelihood, would have caused most of the best and brightest staffers, and perhaps some lawmakers, to simply hightail it for the door. Some quite conservative members even said as much. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, in a candid moment later, called the move “political theater” that would do nothing more than catalyze a rapid “brain drain” in Congress.
Best and Brightest: The Watergate hearings attracted such talented staffers as young Hillary Rodham (center) and lendendary Justice Department lawyer John Doar (left). Credit: Getty Images
While Sensenbrenner was right, one must appreciate the irony. A debilitating brain drain has actually been under way in Congress for the past twenty-five years, and it is Sensenbrenner and his conservative colleagues who have engineered it.
A quick refresher: In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research. (The Republicans who took over the Senate in 1995 were less draconian, cutting committee staff by about 16 percent and leaving the committee system largely in place.) Today, the GAO and the CRS, which serve both House and Senate, are each operating at about 80 percent of their 1979 capacity. While Senate committee staffs have rebounded somewhat under Democratic control, every single House standing committee had fewer staffers in 2009 than in 1994. Since 2011, with a Tea Party-radicalized GOP back in control of the House, Congress has cut its budget by a whopping 20 percent, a far higher ratio than any other federal agency, leading, predictably, to staff layoffs, hiring and salary freezes, and drooping morale.
Why would conservative lawmakers decimate the staff and organizational capacity of an institution they themselves control? Part of it is political optics: What better way to show the conservative voters back home that you’re serious about shrinking government than by cutting your own staff? But a bigger reason is strategic. The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995 and the Tea Partiers of 2011 share the same basic dream: to defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs that have been created by bipartisan majorities since the New Deal. The people in Congress who knew those agencies and programs best and were most invested in making them work—the professional staffers, the CRS analysts, the veteran committee chairs—were not going to consent to seeing them swept away. So they had to be swept away.
Of course, all of this slashing and cutting has done nothing to actually help shrink the federal government. Real federal spending has increased 50 percent since 1995, in line with the growth of the U.S. population and economy. Meanwhile, Washington has fought two major land wars, added two large new entitlement programs (Medicare’s prescription drug benefit under George W. Bush, the ACA under Barack Obama), and created several new federal bureaucracies, ranging from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the gigantic Department of Homeland Security.
At the same time, as political scientist Lee Drutman of the Sunlight Foundation has noted, both the government and the issues it has to deal with have grown more complex. There are more contractors to manage, more stakeholders to liaison with, more technologies to adapt to, more industry-funded research studies to take account of. That, in turn, has made the jobs of congressional staffers, of keeping an eye on government and sorting through the ever-growing amount of information coming at them from lobbyists and constituents, far more difficult, even as their numbers have not remotely kept pace with the growth of government and K Street. In 2010, the House spent $1.37 billion and employed between 7,000 and 8,000 staffers. That same year, corporations and special interests spent twice as much—$2.6 billion—on lobbying (which excludes billions spent on other forms of influence) and employed 12,000 federally registered lobbyists, according to Sunlight Foundation.
Instead of helping to shrink the government, the gutting of congressional expertise and institutional capacity—what New America Foundation scholar and former congressional staffer Lorelei Kelly refers to as a “self-lobotomy”—has had two other effects, both of which have advanced conservative power, if not necessarily conservative ideals.
The first effect is an outsourcing of policy development. Much of the research, number crunching, and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits. This has strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation, and given conservative groups an added measure of influence over Congress, as the shutdown itself illustrates.
Recall that last summer and fall many establishment Republicans, having lived through Newt Gingrich’s disastrous shutdown in the 1990s, argued that doing so again would be folly. So why did so many GOP House members ignore those warnings and listen instead to the Heritage Foundation? Part of the reason was that they were conditioned to do so. Over the years, as Congress’s in-house capacity for independent policy thinking atrophied, the House GOP largely ceded that responsibility to Heritage, which has aligned itself with the Tea Party since former Senator Jim DeMint took the helm in 2013. The think tank became the only outside group that was allowed to brief members and their staff at the influential weekly lunches of the Republican Study Committee, the policy and messaging arm of House conservatives. So when Heritage promised, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats would cave to GOP demands for a delay in the individual mandate and cuts to “special” health care benefits for congressional staffers, many GOP members believed them. (Many who didn’t followed Heritage’s instructions anyway when its lobbying arm, Heritage Action, orchestrated a grassroots email campaign demanding that members hang tough. Subtext? Or else.)
The second effect of the brain drain is a significant decline in Congress’s institutional ability to monitor and investigate a growing and ever-more-complex federal government. This decline has been going on quietly, behind the scenes, for so many years that hardly anyone even notices anymore. But like termites eating away at the joists, there’s a danger of catastrophic collapse unless regular inspections are done. While Congress continues to devote what limited investigative resources it has into the fished-out waters of the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi “scandals” (thirteen Benghazi hearings in the House alone, with a new select committee launched in May), just in the last year we’ve witnessed two appalling government fiascoes that better congressional oversight might have avoided: the botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges and the uncontrolled expansion of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. (Fun fact: while annual federal spending on intelligence has roughly doubled since 1997, staff levels on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have actually declined.) Debacles like these, by undermining the public’s faith in government, wind up perversely advancing the conservative antigovernment agenda—another reason why many Republicans don’t worry much about the brain drain on the Hill. But the rest of us should.
The organizational capacity that conservatives began attacking in 1995 had been painstakingly built up by their liberal and moderate predecessors over the previous quarter century. In the late 1960s, there was a general sense in Congress that the institution needed to upgrade its ability to understand and confront the challenges of a more technologically and socially complex country. Meanwhile, with the Vietnam War heading south and the Richard Nixon administration resorting to such high-handed moves as the secret bombing of Cambodia, many liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans became convinced of the need to counter the power of the White House and of the hawkish southern Democrats, who, because of seniority and other rules, treated the major congressional committees like personal fiefdoms. The result was a series of major reforms in the early to mid-1970s that changed the institution in two fundamental ways.
First, recognizing that information is power in Washington (the first standing committees in the House were established in the 1790s as an independent source of information to counter that of George Washington’s powerful but controversial treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton), Congress enhanced its internal data-gathering and analytical capacities. It bulked up the staffs of committees and member offices. It expanded its in-house think tank, the Legislative Reference Service, renaming it the Congressional Research Service. It overhauled the rules of the budget process and created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to produce nonpartisan fiscal information and projections. And it formed the Office of Technology Assessment to provide timely analyses of the promises and pitfalls of cutting-edge science and technology developments. This expansion of expertise changed the very landscape of Capitol Hill. Congress built the vast Madison Building on Pennsylvania Avenue to house the expanded CRS. It bought the Congressional Hotel to accommodate the growing ranks of committee staff and appropriated an old FBI fingerprint records warehouse for the new CBO.
Second, congressional reformers took on the committee chairs and their ironfisted control over everything from the hiring and firing of staff to which lawmakers got to sit on which subcommittees. A series of rules changes in the House allowed chairmen to be deposed via a secret ballot of committee members; some were, and subcommittees won more control over their budgets, staff, and agendas. The minority party was guaranteed a set percentage of resources and staff. As power flowed down and out, it also flowed up, with the speaker of the House garnering the authority to, among other things, refer bills to committees, privileges once reserved for committee chairs. In the Senate, where individual members always enjoyed more freedom of action, various reforms decentralized power even further.
The result was a great spike in congressional policy development and oversight. A rough but useful measure of both is the number of committee meetings. These rose by half in the Senate and 80 percent in the House from the late 1960s through the ’70s. In the 1980s and mid-’90s, they plateaued, at about 5,000 to 6,000 per year. (Then, with the GOP takeover in 1995, the number of hearings plummeted by nearly 50 percent in the House and by a quarter in Senate. To put it in perspective, in 1958 congressional committees met almost three times more often than they did in 2010. Those numbers rose again, if only briefly, under the Democrats from 2007 through 2010, the latest years for which figures are available.)
The 1960s and ’70s marked one of the great eras of congressional oversight, with the Church and Pike committees investigating intelligence abuses and the Watergate hearings exposing the crimes of the Nixon White House. The latter investigations not only made a bipartisan group of committee members household names (Sam Ervin, Howard Baker) but also employed staffers who would themselves become famous (Fred Thompson, Hillary Rodham).
It was also an important era of policymaking. In his book The Last Great Senate, former Senate staffer Ira Shapiro details how lawmakers of that period—George McGovern, Bob Dole, Charles Mathias, Jacob Javits, Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy—used their mastery of subject matter and process to move complex, politically gnarly legislation, from the successful bailouts of Chrysler and New York City to the Panama Canal Treaty. He recounts, for instance, how Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson made himself so knowledgeable on defense issues that he became a thorn in the side of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, whose policy of détente he deplored for, among other things, ignoring the Soviets’ human rights abuses. Aided by brilliant and well-connected staffers who shared his hawkish views—people like Richard Perle and Dorothy Fosdick—Jackson passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied most-favored-nation trading status to communist-bloc countries that restricted emigration. The amendment ultimately led to the emigration of millions of Soviet Jews and was used by Soviet dissidents as a vital tool in mobilizing support for the overthrow of communism.
The House, too, became a bastion of professional expertise. In the early 1970s, for instance, Representative Henry Reuss, a diligent conservation-minded Wisconsin liberal, and his staff on the Subcommittee on Conservation and Natural Resources, discovered a dusty old piece of legislation, the Refuse Act of 1899, that required anyone who pollutes a lake or stream to have a permit to do so from the Army Corps of Engineers. Reuss then got the U.S. attorney in his home state to successfully sue four major polluters—actions that, Reuss later recalled, “convinced industry to stop fighting federal antipollution legislation and instead accept the reasonable federal regulatory system created by the Clean Water Act of 1972.”
Similarly, in the early days of the effort to pass tax reform in 1984, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski organized a retreat on an Air Force base in Florida where twenty committee members of both parties and ten committee staffers spent three days, with no lobbyists or reporters around, listening to fifteen experts, both liberal and conservative, lecture on how tax reform might work. A year later, when the tax reform legislation was on the ropes, Rostenkowski organized another retreat in rural Virginia between members and top Treasury officials. This kind of deep, bipartisan engagement in the complexities of the tax code (almost inconceivable in today’s House) helped lead to what is still seen as one of the great legislative achievements of the decade, the Tax Reform Act of 1986.
That’s not to say that the 1970s and ’80s were some golden age of evidence-based legislating. The era saw its share of ill-advised government programs, like the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, launched by a Democratic Congress during the 1979 energy crisis despite prescient warnings from the GAO that it would turn out to be a boondoggle. The bipartisan willingness to work together on substantive issues also frayed in the late 1980s and early ’90s when, among other things, a pair of hard-core conservative judicial nominees (Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas) received especially rough treatment by Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, in the House, as the ranks of confrontational antigovernment conservatives grew, Democrats responded by arrogantly exploiting their majority control. Republicans were especially incensed when Speaker Tip O’Neill orchestrated the seating of a Democratic candidate in a contested election for an Indiana House seat and his successor, Jim Wright, used parliamentary maneuvers to limit the GOP’s ability to affect legislation. The leader of the Republicans’ restive House conservatives, Newt Gingrich, rose to power in part by decrying the Democrats’ tactics as “corrupt” in front of C-SPAN cameras. The requirement that all House floor speeches be televised was, ironically, one of the democratizing reforms liberals put in place in the early 1970s.
When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in the fall of 1994, he set about almost immediately creating “the most controversial majority leadership since 1910,” according to longtime Congress watchers and political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their 2006 book, The Broken Branch. Under his leadership, backed up by seventy-three conservative Republican freshmen who swept to power that year, the goal was not to reform, but to destroy; not to compromise, but to advance a highly conservative agenda no matter the means. The shift in culture was palpable almost immediately, with freshman lawmakers eschewing bipartisan freshman orientations in favor of partisan ones, and the vast majority joining what’s known as the “Tuesday-Thursday Club,” flying in on Tuesday evening and out Thursday afternoon so as to reduce the likelihood of contracting “Potomac fever.” “There was a total contempt for the institution,” said Scott Lilly, who served as a high-level staffer in Congress for thirty-one years before joining the Center for American Progress in 2004. John Dingell, who will have served in the House for fifty-nine years when he retires this year, said it succinctly: “The place just got meaner.”
Gingrich’s strategy, as he explained it to Mann and Ornstein, was simple: Cultivate a seething disdain for the institution of Congress itself, while simultaneously restructuring it so as to eliminate anything—powerful chairmen, contradictory facts from legislative support agencies, more moderate Republicans—that would stand in the way of his vision.
Gingrich’s first move in 1995 was to dismantle the decentralized, democratic committee system that the liberals and moderates had created in the 1970s and instead centralize that power on himself. Under his new rules, committee chairs were no longer determined by seniority or a vote by committee members, but instead appointed by the party leadership (read: by Newt himself, who often made appointees swear their loyalty to him). Subcommittees also lost their ability to set their own agendas and schedules; that too largely became the prerogative of the leadership. At the same time, Gingrich imposed six-year term limits and required chairs to be reappointed (by leadership) every two years. Finally, Gingrich protected, and in some cases bulked up, the staff leadership offices and increasingly had those offices write major pieces of legislation and hand them to the committees.
These rules, taken together, essentially stripped all congressional Republicans, especially those in previously senior positions, of power; instead, whether or not they advanced in their careers—whether they were reappointed or on which committee they were appointed—would be determined by party leaders based on their loyalty and subservience. (Two years after the Democrats took the majority in the House in 2007, they eliminated the term-limits rule; Speaker John Boehner reinstated it when the Republicans regained control in 2010.) “If you were thinking about the next stage in your career, you did what you were told to do,” observes Scott Lilly. The point of this centralization of power was to give the leadership maximum control of the legislative agenda and to jam through as many conservative bills as possible. That, it achieved: the Gingrich House passed 124 measures in 1995, more than double the 53 that Tip O’Neill’s House passed in 1981. But over time it also had the effect of dumbing down the institution.
After the first round of term-limit expirations rolled around in 2001, for instance, Republican Representative Ralph Regula was termed out of his chairmanship of the Interior Subcommittee, a position he had held off and on for twenty-six years, during which time he had become the chamber’s de facto expert on public lands and natural resources. Regula was famous in environmental circles for his relentless interest in the unglamorous issue of national park infrastructure maintenance. (At one point his committee uncovered a $330,000 outhouse complete with a slate roof, picture windows, and a twenty-nine-inch-thick earthquake-proof foundation.) His detailed understanding and thrifty instincts helped Regula win support in his caucus for increased funding to reduce the backlog of national park maintenance projects. But that knowledge and clout went with him when he was termed out.
It’s worth noting, of course, that term limits do, in theory, have an upside. They sweep away lawmakers who, over the years, have been captured by the agencies they oversee and the special interests they interact with. And they bring new blood into the committee leadership. In the 1970s, many liberal reformers advocated for term limits for these reasons, and as a means of limiting the power of long-serving southern Democrats who then dominated the chairmanships of the powerful committees. But in order to work, limiting committee chairs’ power and hard-won knowledge needs to be offset by enough staff who have sufficient institutional memory to educate the new members and explain, for instance, when they’re being lied to by the agencies and the special interests. Gingrich, of course, cut the staff, too.
And anyway, the problem with term limits in the mid-’90s was not only a loss of experience in a given subject; it was also a decline in the motivation to learn a subject in depth in the first place. After all, members who know they will move to a new committee in a few years are sometimes hard-pressed to really dig into a subject matter. That natural inclination has been greatly exacerbated by the fact that, beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present day, the leadership often dictates to committees what it wants bills to look like or drafts them outright. So instead of learning deeply about a given subject, debating various policy options, engaging in the nitty-gritty of a topic over the course of years and sometimes decades, committee members nowadays are often asked either to reverse-engineer a piece of legislation based on party leadership’s description of what kind of bill they’d like to see or to simply vote on a bill they did not write to begin with. Is it any surprise that, under those circumstances, deep policy knowledge, curiosity, and innovation have gone out the window? “What’s the payoff for doing a good job? If you take your job seriously as a chairman, who gives a shit?” says Bruce Bartlett, who worked as a congressional staffer in the 1970s and ’80s for Representative Jack Kemp, Representative Ron Paul, and the Joint Economic Committee.
In the past, members angled for committee assignments in part based on their personal backgrounds and the interests of their states or constituencies—another factor that favored the accumulation of subject-area knowledge—but under the new rules, leadership made the choices based more on political calculation. Seats on the “prestigious” committees began to go most often to members who were likely to face a strong challenger in the next election, so that they could brag to constituents about their powerful role or, more to the point, position themselves for corporate campaign contributions. “There was an immediate atrophy of the professional qualifications of the committees,” said Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional aide who has since been publicly critical of the Republican Party. “Knowing anything about the committee’s jurisdiction just didn’t factor in.”
Of course, it’s hard to learn much about the substance of the issues if you’re spending four hours a day “dialing for dollars” to raise campaign funds, as both parties recently instructed their members to do, in addition to another hour or two of attending fund-raisers. Compare that to the three to four hours per day members spend on average attending hearings, voting, meeting with constituents, studying, debating, and legislating. But while both parties are equally aggressive in hunting for money, Democrats have repeatedly tried to pass public financing bills to lessen the fund-raising burdens on incumbents and challengers alike. Republicans have just as frequently (and successfully) fought those bills. That’s an indication of how the parties differ philosophically on the role of private money in politics. But it’s also a fair gauge of how much weight each party gives to the importance of lawmakers knowing the substance of the issues they are legislating on.
Gingrich’s second move in 1995 was to go after the pooled funding that paid for the so-called professional staffers, who worked for the institution itself. Professional staff, most of whom were not explicitly partisan, were often deeply knowledgeable not only about policy issues within their expertise but also about the institution itself. They knew what had worked in the past, what members’ preferences and personalities were like, and how to draft a bill that would pass. As one member described it to me, professional staffers are “legislative lubricant,” often acting as referees or liaisons during committee debates. Within months, Gingrich had laid off about 800 of them. All told, he cut the total population of professional staffers by more than a third—a wound from which Congress has never recovered. In 1993, Congress employed nearly 2,150 professional committee staff; in 2011, there were just 1,316, according to the most recent data.
The professional staff also helped to run legislative service organizations (LSOs), informal study groups where members, often of both parties, would discuss specific issues, debate, share information, build trust, and “gain expertise on ‘big-picture’ national issues outside the jurisdiction of committees,” notes the New America Foundation’s Lorelei Kelly. The LSOs vanished along with pooled funding and shared staff in 1995.
Those professional staffers who were there at the time remember the atmosphere changing. “After Newt put the kibosh on shared staff, the whole place began to work more like Politico,” said one former senior staffer who worked on the Hill for two decades, referring to the website’s 24/7 attention to scandal, intrigue, and political strategy over deeper policy discussions. “No one was asking, What kind of legislation will this be? How can we make it better? Where do we need to go to get a compromise? They were asking, What kind of political fallout will this have? Who will look good? Who can we make look bad?”
Gingrich also cut the number of staffers working directly for House members. While those numbers later rose, they did so in a way that further reflects the intellectual hollowing out of the institution. Nearly all of the net increase in member staff since the late 1990s has been not in Washington, where the actual legislating happens, but in district offices, where the main jobs are handling constituent complaints, shuttling members around to local events, and getting them press—in short, ensuring their reelection. Not surprisingly, in the past decade, members have moved roughly 33 percent of their staff capacity away from policymaking and toward communications roles, according to a recent Congressional Management Foundation report.
Keeping good staff, professional or otherwise, is also a struggle considering the pay scales. While it’s difficult to compare salaries—the direct equivalent of a “legislative assistant” in the private sector is hotly debated—a measured 2009 report by the Sunlight Foundation concluded that Hill staffers are paid roughly a third less than they could make in the private sector. The on-the-job knowledge and connections staffers accumulate become exponentially more valuable over time to the lobbying shops on K Street, and the opportunity costs of staying become hard to ignore. According to a 2012 Washington Times analysis, 82 percent of Senate staffers and 70 percent of House staffers hired in 2005 had left the Hill by 2012.
The one thing that has traditionally kept at least some Hill staffers from leaving for the private sector is the heady nature of the work on Capitol Hill—the ability to fight for issues they believe in, to be in the room when the big decisions are being made, to put their personal stamp on legislation that will change history. But even that motivation has been undermined by the Tea Party-inspired gridlock that has blocked most major legislation in both houses since 2010 and squandered staff energies in pointless budget standoffs. “Those who are nourished by accomplishment are starving,” observes former Senator Byron Dorgan. “People who come highly motivated, they want to feel good about their challenge, their work, what they’re doing for the country. When they’re not getting that, they start looking around.”
The third target of Gingrich’s attacks was the legislative support agencies. The Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, and now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment operated on a bipartisan basis, offering measured reports on topics suggested by members themselves. Sometimes, these agencies act as helpful librarians, and sometimes they’re more like referees, carefully adjudicating among the competing quantitative claims of various members and outside groups.
Gingrich, perhaps not surprisingly, viewed them all as potential rivals to his singular narrative. He particularly despised the OTA, as did many other conservatives, despite its evident usefulness. For instance, Congress saved hundreds of millions of dollars by incorporating OTA recommendations when the Social Security Administration moved to replace its old-school mainframe computers with a new computer network in the mid-’90s. (One wonders how things might have been different if the OTA had been around when the health care insurance exchanges were being built.) But over the years, the OTA had also cast doubt on some conservative ideas—a mortal sin as far as Gingrich and his followers were concerned. For example, an OTA report raising serious questions about the feasibility of Reagan’s Star Wars project was later used by Democrats to help defund the program.
Within a few months of taking the helm in 1995, Gingrich eliminated the OTA entirely and cut roughly a third of the staff in all the other congressional service agencies. According to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics of Congress, those agencies have never recovered. The GAO lost more than 2,000 staffers between 1993 and 2010. CRS staff lost about 20 percent of its capacity. All told, in 1993 Congress employed 6,166 researchers; by 2011, that number was down to just over 4,000.
How has the brain drain affected Washington? To begin with, just look at all the construction cranes that dot the city’s skyline. The ongoing migration of talent out of Capitol Hill has helped drive the building boom in downtown D.C. as surely as the Pentagon’s contracting-out craze, which also took off in the 1990s, gave rise to the corporate office towers of Northern Virginia.
You can see the effect in the shabby, politicized work product coming out of many committees. In May, for instance, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a survey conducted by its GOP staff purporting to show that only 67 percent of people who signed up for health insurance on the federal exchange had paid their first premium—a number that, if true, would have embarrassed the administration. In fact, the survey gave a false impression by counting as nonpayers people who hadn’t yet been billed. Insurance company executives later testified in public to the committee that their estimated payment rate was 80 percent. “Republicans were visibly exasperated,” reported The Hill, “as insurers failed to confirm certain claims about ObamaCare, such as the committee’s allegation that one-third of federal exchange enrollees have not paid their first premium.”
You can see it in the recent string of surprise retirement announcements from House GOP committee chairman who will be term-limited out of their positions next year. That includes Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, whose committee (which has miraculously retained some level of bipartisan competence) labored to put together a credible tax reform plan. The GOP said the plan was one of the party’s top legislative goals, but John Boehner tabled the measure in an effort not to muddy the midterm elections with substantive issues. “It used to be that the chairman would call the speaker up and say, ‘I want this bill on this floor at this time,'” explains Dingell. “Now it’s the opposite.”
You can see it in frequent little dustups meant to undermine the legitimacy of the findings of congressional service organizations, like the one that engulfed the Congressional Research Service in 2012, when its economics division published a report surveying the effects of tax cuts going back decades and concluding that they do not generate sufficient new tax revenues from economic growth to pay for themselves—the main tenet of supply-side economics. A firestorm of anger from Senate Republicans led the CRS to pull the report.
You can also see the effects in stories like the one that appeared on the front page of the New York Times last May about a House bill that would exempt broad swaths of derivative trades from new Dodd-Frank Act regulations. The bill, which passed the House 292 to 122 before dying in the Senate, was written not only at the behest of lobbyists from Citigroup but by Citigroup lobbyists:
In a sign of Wall Street’s resurgent influence in Washington, Citigroup’s recommendations were reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill. Two crucial paragraphs, prepared by Citigroup in conjunction with other Wall Street banks, were copied nearly word for word. (Lawmakers changed two words to make them plural.)
It’s true that both parties have outsourced much of their policy development over the years. Groups like the Center for American Progress to some extent do for Democrats what Heritage does for Republicans (or did prior to Jim DeMint’s takeover), and plenty of lawmakers from both parties take their policy instructions from Wall Street lobbyists. But whereas for Democrats the outsourcing of policy has happened more by necessity, for Republicans it’s been by design. Newt Gingrich began the process in the 1990s with his attacks on in-house congressional expertise. Leaders like Tom DeLay in the House and Rick Santorum in the Senate advanced that process in the 2000s with the “K Street Project,” an organized effort to place GOP Hill staffers in key jobs in the most important D.C. law firms and trade associations.
As Nicholas Confessore explained in these pages (“Welcome to the Machine,” July/August 2003), the K Street Project tried to harness the muscle and campaign cash of a fractious lobbying community behind the specific legislative agenda of the George W. Bush administration with the ultimate aim of creating a permanent GOP majority. While it failed in that larger goal, it did succeed in providing GOP congressional leaders with something they needed: an alternative to the in-house legislative expertise Gingrich had decimated. With the leadership’s own former employees now in charge of D.C.’s biggest lobbying shops and all the research and other resources they commanded, K Street became, in a sense, the new permanent staff of the GOP Congress. (Democratic leaders have since attempted to place more of their former staffers on K Street, but have yet to catch up to Republicans in terms of numbers and clout.)
In addition to the outsourcing of policy development, the other big effect of the brain drain has been the atrophying of congressional oversight. Good oversight requires teams of educated, detail-oriented staffers who have the time to cull through documents, review thousands of line items in a budget, read budget justifications, and then follow up with federal agencies or local programs to determine what is really happening in government programs on the ground. Those teams have traditionally resided in the committees, buttressed by permanent staff and long-serving members, and in the legislative service agencies like the GAO. As we’ve seen, both were greatly downsized in the 1990s and remained profoundly understaffed and under-resourced.
Of course, good oversight has always been more the exception than the rule in Congress, in part because it has never been a particularly sexy part of a Congress member’s job, and in part because voters don’t generally reward members who excel at it. Rare are the headlines congratulating Congress for catching disasters before they happen.
Even today, valuable oversight still happens on occasion. In the run-up to the 2010 census, for instance, the GAO identified fatal flaws in the handheld computer devices the Census Bureau was planning to use as a cost-saving measure. Thanks to the GAO’s reports, major fixes to the devices were made, the officials originally in charge of the project canned, and a possible disaster with the decennial census averted.
Still, there has unquestionably been a massive falloff in congressional oversight. In the decade after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, the number of Senate oversight hearings dropped by a third, and House oversight hearings fell by half, according to the Brookings Institution. And even these numbers probably understate the problem. A lot of oversight hearings today are almost strictly for show, especially in the House. And even those that are meant to be serious suffer from the ignorance and poor preparation of many lawmakers. “In the old days, the member used to know more than any witness from the outside that came before the committee,” Dingell said. “Today, they don’t. Members don’t even understand the issues. They don’t even ask questions that are relevant. Sometimes they just want to give a political speech.”
Congress’s failure of oversight is perhaps least obvious but most critical on the appropriations committees and subcommittees. These entities control the purse strings for every government program and agency. It has traditionally been their job—and they once took it seriously— to ensure that dollars were being spent on programs that were doing what they said they were doing. That sort of line-item oversight takes time and a dedicated staff that is paying an inordinate amount of attention to detail. “It was never a thrilling process,” said Scott Lilly, who served as a clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, “but it was vital.”
And it has all but ceased to happen in the past decade or so, as staff numbers have dwindled and the passing of sweeping, omnibus budgets have become the norm. Even when they do try to look, appropriations subcommittees are snowed under by literally thousands of pages— “multiple tomes,” as one staffer put it—of oversight reports that no one has the time to read. “Agencies just fill up these budget justifications with all sorts of meaningless metrics, which is a convenient tool to overwhelm a handful of staffers, who are stretched so thin they don’t have the time to find out anything that’s going on,” Lilly said. The result, Republican Senator Tom Coburn pointed out in a 2012 report, is wasted money, uncontrolled government programs, and a panicky sense of “fire-alarm oversight” in which members of Congress don’t ask questions until a scandal breaks and there’s a mad scurry to assign blame.
This widespread, decades-long congressional brain drain could be fixed overnight. Members of Congress, after all, control the national budget. All they need to do is allocate a couple hundred million bucks—chump change in the $4.8 trillion budget—to boost staff levels, increase salaries to retain the best staff, and fill out the institutional capacity of the body. This wouldn’t necessarily mean recreating precisely the infrastructure of the 1970s—hundreds of guys in white short-sleeved shirts sitting in cubicles in some building on South Capitol Street. As New America’s Lorelei Kelly has observed, technology now allows for any number of ways to create distributed networks of expertise. Congress could place policy and oversight staff in district offices, for instance, where they’d be closer to the ground, or create research and advisory partnerships between Congress
Regardless of how it’s organized or what new technologies can be brought to bear, what’s clear is that members of Congress need the institutional capacity to help them make sense of it all. As the issues facing members of Congress become increasingly intertwined and technological in our complex global economy, what we need is not fewer people in government who understand the implications of, say, the international derivatives market; what we need is more. And we need them, whether they be knowledgeable committee chairs or long-serving professional staff, to be experienced, well paid, and appreciated so they want to stick around for a while.
The problem, however, is that conservatives as a rule don’t see this lack of expertise as a problem. Quite the contrary: they’ve orchestrated the brain drain precisely as a way to advance the conservative agenda. Why, when your aim is less government, would you want to add to government’s intellectual capacity?
The answer, as some conservatives are beginning to realize, is that making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller. As the conservative but independent-minded Senator Tom Coburn wrote in his 2012 report, cuts to the GAO budget and declines in Senate and House committee oversight activity have resulted in billions of dollars in unnecessary, duplicative, and wasteful government spending. In another sign of dawning awareness, last year the House leadership, having been led astray one too many times by the Heritage Foundation and its Heritage Action lobbyists, barred those lobbyists from attending the Republican Study Committee’s weekly meetings.
At a press conference in the aftermath of last fall’s pointless government shutdown, a dazed and incredulous Speaker Boehner squinted into the cameras and proclaimed that groups like Heritage had “lost all credibility.” You’ll recall, he noted, that “the day before the government reopened, one of those groups stood up and said, ‘We never really thought it would work,’â€‰” Boehner said, his eyes bugging theatrically. He waited a beat or two for dramatic emphasis before his voice crackled with dismay: “Are you kidding me?”
It’s a long way from these glimmers of recognition that outsourcing Congress’s thinking ability may not be such a good idea to a willingness to do something serious to reverse the brain drain. The Republicans are nowhere near even considering that (which means the best hope for now may be a Democratic takeover of both houses). But it’s a start.