America’s political institutions are suffering from profound decay. The political parties—especially the Republicans—have become so constrained by their activists and addicted to short-term one-upmanship that they are incapable of governing together. At the same time, the political power of the very wealthy and organized business interests has reached levels that undermine our legitimate expectations that the political system should be able to solve big problems and generate shared prosperity.
These twin phenomena are part of the same basic pathology—the capture of our governing institutions by concentrated interests and the weakening of the structures that aggregate and balance public preferences and channel expertise toward workable consensus.
They also have a similar cause: more than three decades of disinvesting in government’s capacity to keep up with skyrocketing numbers of lobbyists and policy institutes, well-organized partisans, and an increasingly complex social and legal context. Instead, policymakers have increasingly turned to the information and analytical capacity provided for them by those with the biggest material and ideological stakes in the outcome. This dependence has created a power asymmetry crisis that has been quietly building for almost four decades.
Like many crises, it has been allowed to build because it has escaped our attention. Political reform advocates have largely ignored it, in large part because it doesn’t fit into the keep-the-money-out-of-politics narrative that has gripped the political reform community since Watergate. The classic political reform move is to deflate the pressure that powerful interests can bring to bear on government by reducing their campaign spending, or to counter that pressure by getting the elusive saviors of our democracy—“the people” or “moderate voters”—to pay attention and demand accountability, or even just to show up to vote. Yet it’s hard to escape the conclusion that these strategies have failed. Every year, more and more money floods into the political system (and conservatives on the Supreme Court dismantle more controls on such money that reformers had managed to erect). Every year, civic leaders bemoan low levels of voter turnout, and the control of primary elections by the most ideologically extreme voters. It’s still worth fighting to limit corporate money in politics and to boost voter participation; the right tactics and the right political moment may someday meet. But the truth is that in a liberal democracy that deeply values freedom of participation, it is all but impossible to quash malign forces by constraining their ability to exert “pressure” on our government institutions—and it’s extremely difficult to meaningfully increase the participation of the diffuse and unmobilized.
Rather than obsess over reducing the pressure of corporate money in politics, or countering it with democratic mobilization, reformers should open up a third front: increase government’s capacity to withstand that pressure. Government, after all, is not simply a passive strand of rope in a game of policy tug-of-war. Properly resourced, organized, and motivated, the institutions of government can develop the knowledge to think independently, and the resources to push back against the claims of the mobilized and wealthy in the name of the unmobilized. Government cannot do this if its capacity to collect and process information has been systematically dismantled. Yet this decimating is exactly what has happened to the institutions of the United States in the last few decades. With few exceptions, our policymaking institutions are losing the ability to think for themselves. In some cases, it’s already gone.
In an earlier era of wealth inequality and highly partisan politics much like our own, progressives succeeded in partially insulating the executive branch from partisan and business pressure. They did it through the creation of a civil service system that professionalized government in a way that allowed it to build up the capacity and expertise necessary to tame some of the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism.
In the intervening years, our faith in government has waxed and waned in an almost cyclical fashion. We invested in government capacity to win two world wars and counter a great depression, and then in the 1960s and 1970s to address a range of market failures dealing with the environment, and workplace and consumer safety issues.
Then sometime around 1980, government capacity just flatlined. Congress stopped hiring, then began cutting. Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which provide nonpartisan policy and program analysis to lawmakers, employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979. The same pattern of diminished in-house expertise is true throughout government. As the University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio has noted, the number of federal bureaucrats declined about 10 percent between 1984 and 2012. At the same time, business lobbying, political polarization, and wealth inequality all started their steady and unmitigated increases. Put simply, the pressures have increased. The ability of the government to deal with them has not.
If we can’t reduce the pressure, then we have little choice but to arm our institutions to resist it. The first step is to—finally—make Congress a place where policymaking can be informed by meritocratic expertise. America is one of the only countries in the world with a real, working legislature that is a peer to the executive. But it is hampered by a level of patronage that would make Boss Tweed or Richard Daley blush.
Reversing that pattern does not mean remaking congressional staff in the image of the executive branch bureaucracy—which itself is in need of significant reform. Given that Congress is and probably always will be organized by parties, it also does not mean creating a totally nonpartisan staff. But it is possible to retain partisanship while bringing greater professionalism, deeper expertise, and some of the features of a civil service system to Congress.
So long as we have a congressional staff that lacks a high level of expertise, and that constantly cycles through the institution, often on their way to becoming lobbyists to help out the next class of legislative neophytes, no amount of campaign finance reform or electoral noodling will make a difference. If we can’t figure out how to give Congress back its brain, we may wake up to realize that we are more like Brazil and Mexico than Germany or Denmark. We may already be there.
Policymakers do not just act; they also think. To deploy their significant capacities to tax, spend, and regulate, legislators and regulators must be able to acquire comprehensive information about social problems, weigh the merits of claims presented to them, consider a range of solutions, and anticipate the ways in which their designs could go off track. The more complexity policymakers have to deal with, the greater the strain on their ability to intelligently think before they act. With each year, the strain gets greater, because the social, political, and legal complexity all continue to grow.
As Adam Smith knew, specialization is the hand-maiden of economic growth. But as societies become more specialized, they also become harder to comprehend. With each passing year there are more products and services; there are new technologies; there is more relevant scientific knowledge. Take almost any subject matter—finance, medicine, any technology—and think what it would take to have an informed opinion about it now, as opposed to in 1980. To legislate intelligently on any subject—or even to intelligently consume policy analysis—requires considerably more information and conceptual sophistication than it did at the dawn of the Reagan administration.
In 2012, there were about 1.9 million articles published in 28,000 scholarly peer-reviewed academic journals. Most of those articles are available with a few clicks of a keyboard. But information is not knowledge, which requires a high level of training in the various disciplines of social science, along with a humanistic understanding of history and a good bit of experience. You can type a question like “How do we fix copyright law?” into Google. In less than one second, you will have more than 43.1 million results—more than enough to consume the rest of your life. Google is no substitute for trained judgment.
The complexity of political demands is also increasing. The number of organizations with Washington representation more than doubled between 1981 and 2006, from 6,681 to 13,776. All of these organizations are in Washington for a reason: they have policies they’d like to see enacted and/or blocked, and they want to make those demands clear. They produce information, and then take up staff time for meetings, time for responses to their queries and asks.
Lobbying expenditures have grown even more, from an estimated $200 million in 1983 to $3.24 billion in 2013—a sixfold increase, controlling for inflation. And this doesn’t count the proliferation of strategic consulting and issues management and research organizations that now fill Washington. One recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that between 2008 and 2012, the American Petroleum Institute paid Edelman, a public relations conglomerate, $327.4 million for advertising and PR, far more than the association spent on lobbying. Moreover, almost half of Fortune 500 companies also now have their own grassroots-mobilization consultants, finds Edward T. Walker in Grassroots for Hire. All of this intrudes on the already limited attention of policymakers.
While many groups are indeed represented, 80 percent of lobbying spending is on behalf of business. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying (and collectively account for about one-third of all lobbying expenditures), consistently between ninety and ninety-five of them represent business.
Washington is also now awash in privately funded policy research. According to R. Kent Weaver and Andrew Rich, the number of Washington-based think tanks more than tripled between 1970 and 1996, from 100 to 306. James G. McGann at the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program counted 1,828 think tanks in the United States in 2013. But fewer and fewer think tanks can claim the mantle of truly neutral expertise anymore. Instead, most are funded by industry, labor, or wealthy partisan donors whose official stance as “nonpartisan,” necessary for tax status, is a transparent veil for their advocacy-first work product. One does not go to the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress for their neutral expertise. While such think tanks may produce much substantive analysis, their analysis is intended for (and consumed by) adherents of only one political party.
Meanwhile, outside of Washington, the internet revolution has made it easier than ever for ideological birds of a feather to share talking points and then bombard congressional offices and agency comment processes with them. Reelection-minded members of Congress devote considerable resources to responding, and have a hard time judging how representative such beliefs are. If MoveOn has the eight million members it claims on its website, this would mean that 2.5 percent of Americans belong to the organization. These individuals are far more likely to contact their member of Congress than the average citizen. But how closely do they represent the views of the other 97.5 percent of Americans who don’t belong to MoveOn? It’s unlikely that they are representative. But even if just 2.5 percent of your congressional district contacts you on an issue, that’s still about 20,000 people—more than enough to create an impression, and to merit a crafted response.
Government is now called on to process much more information today as compared to thirty-five years ago. More different people are making more demands and producing more research and writing more analysis. Nobody can keep up.
This has consequences. Given limited time and nearly unlimited demands, policymakers have to choose who and what to pay genuine attention to. The loudest, most insistent voices have an advantage. Those who can saturate Washington by funding the most research, hiring the most lobbyists, and paying for the most elites to write op-eds highlighting and supporting their perspective are going to stay at the front of the crowd. Everyone else will recede into the background.
There is also more legal complexity. The U.S. code of federal regulations grew from 71,224 pages in 1975 to 102,295 pages in 1980 to 174,545 pages by 2012. Some of this is the result of societal complexity—new technologies and new projects require new regulations. Some of it is the result of political demand complexity—many of the lobbying demands involve calls for new laws. And many of the laws are written in ways to obscure their impacts, adding a qualitative dimension to the complexity. This matters for a simple reason. To effectively make new law, one must understand existing law. To change existing law, one must understand existing law. The more expansive and complex the law, the more specialized knowledge it takes to become an expert. Government can invest in resources that would allow it to acquire this specialized knowledge, or it can rely on externally provided experts with a material stake to help it draft and enact laws. For decades, we have chosen the second.
All three types of complexity are only going to keep growing. (What intervention could possibly stop them?) If we continue on our current path of not giving the government adequate policy capacity, the gap between what our policymakers need to know to effectively govern and what they actually know will only increase. Corporate lobbyists and the most ideological of “the people” will continue to be happy to tell our government what to do, and how to do it. Lacking their own capacity, government will have no other choice but to increasingly turn to them for help. And lacking their own knowledge, policymakers will have an even harder time evaluating these analyses and suggestions on anything other than quantity and volume.
Imagine that you are a rank-and-file member of the House. Your small office of at most three or four policy staff is already stretched thin. The policy staff are also likely to predominantly be in their twenties or maybe thirties, something that shocks observers from abroad. In the 2009 movie In the Loop, a senior British civil servant, upon meeting an American twentysomething in a suit, trenchantly observes, “He’s probably running something relatively major.…They’re all kids in Washington. It’s like Bugsy Malone but with real guns.” If your constituents knew just how much you delegated to your fresh-faced staff, they too might be shocked. Your staff may be bright and energetic and have genuine power (because you are too busy fund-raising or smiling before cameras somewhere, and therefore must delegate). But they don’t have the serious policy chops that can only come with years of experience.
If you want to accomplish something and raise your profile, you can turn to the armies of corporate lobbyists, who are only too happy to enlist you in their substantive policy ambitions, or you can turn to your party’s base with some symbolic position taking. You probably already chose one of these paths in your rise to getting elected. But even if you didn’t (or if we somehow reformed campaigns), you’d still find only these two paths forward to prominence. So pick one.
If you are a committee leader in the House, you will have slightly more internal policy capacity, but the demands on your attention will be far greater. Everyone wants to talk to you and your staff. How will you manage these demands? If you want to accomplish anything, you will need outside help to draft and vet policy proposals.
You will also need the support of the rank-and-file members of your committee. How will you get this? Your staff is just not big enough. You will need external help. You will need to lean on either the lobbying machine of big business or the research machine of ideologically motivated or industry-funded think tanks.
Because all of your committee members have turned to outside support to develop their policy positions and proposals, you as committee chair will have less influence over them. This means that you will get a more limited set of bills and proposals out of committee. If you propose anything that goes against the preferences of big business or the ideologically mobilized, these actors will lobby the heck out of your committee members. They will deluge you with claims of the dire consequences of actions they dislike, or claim that substantial, complex measures are needed to avoid disastrous consequences. Even if you are suspicious of such claims, you are unlikely to have the knowledge to push back. If you are risk averse (and susceptible to that classic of defensive lobbying: “You don’t know what you’re doing! Section B, Subsection 48 could have unintended consequences that will cause the economy to collapse”), you will do what they suggest. This, in a nutshell, is the story of the last three decades of financial regulation, and explains why an industry that is in such bad odor still mainly succeeds at getting what it wants.
If you are in the party leadership, you are mostly in the position of choosing among the policies passed through committees. By the time you are choosing what to prioritize, the field of possible proposals is mostly limited to those that individual members and committee chairs were able to move forward—which means, essentially, those with enough outside support. From leadership’s perspectives, the more external support, the better.
The same basic situation holds in the Senate, albeit with some institutional differences. Either way, it is a formula for getting very little done—paralysis by mobilized analysis. The little that can get done will be largely limited to policies that hit the sweet spot of support from lobbyists for large corporations without intense partisans mounting serious objections, or vice versa. The rare exceptions involve scandal and societal crisis.
Take, for example, the small provision in the continuing resolution omnibus bill at the end of last year that repealed a section of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The provision was largely written by Citigroup lobbyists—because what congressman or congressional staffer knows enough about derivatives to write this kind of legislation without industry help? But not only did bank lobbyists write the bill, they also made their case tirelessly to the entire U.S. House. The finance industry, with an assist from the Chamber of Commerce, sent out a total of 351 different lobbyists, including four former members and at least forty-five revolving-door lobbyists (based on disclosures) to hammer home the same argument over and over: the offending section of the law was ill-considered; the change they wanted was a small one that would actually make the financial system less risky. By contrast, the diffuse interests, unions, and few other scattered groups opposing the repeal were much less active. The banks’ convincing was enough to allow the provision to pass the House by a solid 292-122 vote before being included in the must-pass legislation.
Kansas Republican Representative Kevin Yoder, who introduced the bill, was “looking out for regional and small banks, and farmers caught up in Dodd-Frank regulations,” according to his aides. His case was simple: “This essentially is about creating predictability,” Yoder said. “It’s about consumer protection, and financial protection, and lastly it’s about jobs.”
These kinds of talking points likely came directly from the bank lobbyists, who surely made their persuasive case not just to Yoder, but also to his colleagues in the House. Yoder, like many of his colleagues, did not have a background in high finance. And derivatives are a famously complicated topic. On a subject like this, congressional offices usually have one way to really learn about the topic, and that is from the bank lobbyists who are willing to take the time, often connecting them with experts within the companies.
If you talk to lobbyists, you’ll quickly learn that a good part of what they do is help their allies with the nitty-gritty of developing and then passing policy. Some of that involves generating ideas, and some of that involves actually writing the legislation. Congressional offices rarely have the time or resources to generate their own policies—and certainly not on complex issues like derivatives.
In 1945, Republican Senator Styles Bridges told a committee investigating the problem of congressional capacity, “I feel that we should have a staff on our committees and we should do away with the downtown-loaned experts, who are always biased individuals.” That committee, the Monroney-La Follette Committee, recommended sweeping changes to congressional organization, changes that would have created a professionalized merit-based committee staff system. As Senator Mike Monroney, an Oklahoma Democrat, told his colleagues, “We simply cannot struggle along under this type of workload unless we equip ourselves to answer the challenge that the Constitution’s framers intended Congress to carry out.”
The 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act enacted some of the recommendations of the Monroney-La Follette Committee, and Congress did give itself a little more capacity. It also brought more coherence to a then-chaotic committee system. But powerful committee chairmen did not like the idea of merit-based professionalized committee staff. They wanted committee staff they could control, and who would be loyal to them. So Congress got capacity, but not necessarily neutral expertise. Between 1955 and 1970, committee and policy support staff from the CRS doubled, from 881 to 1,669.
One notable model of congressional policy capacity during this period was the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, which emerged into a hub of technical expertise on complicated tax issues. As Michael Malbin wrote of the committee in a 1980 book on congressional staff, Unelected Representatives, “The advice is more than technically expert. The joint tax committee gives the members a neutral institutional memory of the sort political appointees in the executive branch get from the better career civil servants.” Malbin noted that the permanent staff provided members with “more help understanding complex tax issues than they could possibly get from their ever changing cadre of legislative assistants.” This is the benefit of long-term policy staff: their experience helps them to understand not only the policy details but also the political history. They also have a long-term incentive to provide good advice: they are not around for a few years to score some political points and move on, or to acquire knowledge and connections that they can then rent out to the highest bidder by setting up shop as a lobbyist.
The biggest investment in policy staff came during the 1970s. Congress roughly tripled its committee and policy support staff, from 1,669 to 4,377, between 1970 and 1979. A good bit of this increase came in creating two new in-house (almost exclusively merit-based) think tanks: the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), created in 1972 to help Congress get smart on emerging technologies; and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), created in 1974 in the wake of the Nixon budget impoundment crisis to give Congress more of a brain on budgetary matters. Both attracted high-quality experts whose reports and analyses improved policymaking. Committee policy staff also increased in the 1970s because of the proliferation of new subcommittees, which also required new staff.
The buildup of in-house congressional expertise from 1946 to 1979 certainly didn’t keep lawmakers from making plenty of mischief and bad policy. But it did provide Congress with the capacity to think and act for itself—to override corporate pressure and pass legislation cleaning up the air and water; to prosecute, in bipartisan fashion, the crimes of the Nixon White House; and to investigate and roll back intelligence agency abuses with the now-legendary Church and Pike Committees.
When Congress had capacity, it had the time and resources to get together and think through legislation and oversee the rest of the government. Now it doesn’t. As the figure on the left shows, the time lawmakers spent in committee meetings deliberating together rose at a steady clip from the early 1960s until the late 1970s, then plummeted. The decline was partially a consequence of the time demands on members of the rise in campaign fund-raising, but the decline in staff played a critical role. So, instead of debating issues in committee meetings, members and their staff get briefed separately by lobbyists—the very people that members were now spending so much more time raising money from.
After the 1970s, Congress stopped adding capacity. In their new book, The Politics of Information, Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones describe an expansion of “the arena of serious dialogue for possible government intervention” up until a peak that occurs around 1978 or so. From there, it’s all back down. Baumgartner and Jones find a steady decline in the number of policy areas government tackles and commensurate declines in the capacity for generating and acquiring information.
From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, congressional capacity flatlined. Then, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans swept into power after being in the House minority for forty years, they decided that what Congress really needed was less professional staff. Some of this was driven by a belief that such capacity allowed Congress to do too much, or that the staff was a third column of liberals pretending to be experts. Whatever the motivation, Gingrich cut committee staff by a third, reduced the legislative support staff by a third, and killed the Office of Technology Assessment. (For more on these actions, see Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards, “The Big Lobotomy,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2014.)
Historians differ on whether Gingrich was a successful speaker, and how deep his impact was on public policy. But his impact on Congress as an institution is unquestionable. The changes he wrought in the analytical capacity of Congress stuck, with staff levels still more or less at the level he helped cut them to. And this understates how durable the Gingrich-era reforms have been, since the flatlining of congressional capacity has happened at a time of exploding social complexity and lobbying demands. With staff numbers fixed and the demands on them increasing, the actual capacity of congressional staff to engage seriously with issues has gone down—and stayed down.
The federal government across all its branches has experienced a deterioration in its ability to acquire, process, and analyze information. But the problem is especially urgent in Congress, which is at the center of America’s current governing crisis.
What would we need to do if we were serious about rebuilding Congress? The first priority should be making working for Congress a long-term career, where staff can invest in real policy knowledge and also get to know the players and the histories in a way that can make them effective. They need to develop long-term incentives that align with long-term institutional success, rather than seeing a job in Congress as a short-term stop on the way to something else.
Conservatives are on to something when they say that liberals are too quick to solve problems by throwing money at them. But creating a primary career track for congressional staff is a solution that could actually wind up saving taxpayers money in the long run by adding some much-needed oversight to some of what government does, and getting better value by enacting smarter policy. We know that is the case in federal purchasing, where the declining number and quality of federal procurement officials has led to a ballooning of the cost of contractors. It is folly to pay bottom-tier salaries and expect top-tier results.
Congress doesn’t have to pay lobbyist-level salaries, since staff jobs, especially if reformed in the way we suggest, offer experiences and opportunities that can’t be had even on K Street—close, trusted, day-in/day-out relationships with lawmakers, being inside the room when the big decisions are made, and shaping the laws of the land based on your best judgment of the public interest rather than the interest of some client. These are powerful attractions that lead idealistic young people to flood Congress with resumes year after year and make many former staffers wistful. But if we want to keep capacity from seeping out of Congress once that initial burst of idealism confronts the high living costs of Washington, we need to pay our wonks enough that the satisfactions of their jobs aren’t automatically outweighed by the monetary advantages of “going downtown.” That means increasing salaries above the entry level, and creating a generous pension program for senior staff to encourage longevity.
How bad is the staff pay gap between Congress and K Street? Even those in the top 90 percent of salaries in personal congressional offices are barely at $100,000. Median salaries in member offices are consistently below $50,000. Committee staff earn more, but even those in the top 90 percent are only earning about $160,000, which is what a first-year associate at a Washington law firm earns. A Sunlight Foundation analysis done by one of us (Drutman) found that the median lobbying revenue a former government staffer generated in 2012 was $300,000. This is a good proxy for salary, since lobbyists tend to be compensated based on the business they bring in. Those with solid committee experience, however, should expect to earn well above this median.
A Sunlight Foundation analysis by Daniel Schuman and Alisha Green found that between 1991 and 2005, Senate chiefs of staff saw their pay increase (in constant 2010 dollars) on average from $130,000 to $164,000; legislative directors saw an increase from $105,000 to $126,000, while legislative assistants’ salaries rose from $65,000 to $71,000. While these are modest increases at the high end, Washington, D.C., has become one of the most expensive cities in the United States. As a corporate lobbyist told one of us (Drutman), “It’s tough to live off the government paycheck. You make so little money. One of the big things that’s wrong with the system is that somebody finally learns their job and then they have to move on, so you have a bunch of young folks who turn to lobbyists to figure out their jobs.”
Second, Congress needs to concentrate its top talent on committees, where staffers can focus on developing policy (rather than responding to constituents). The first-best option would be to reconstruct committee staff on the model of the CBO and the GAO, which provide stable long-term employment to highly trained policy experts, in a context of strict nonpartisanship. Given that most members of Congress are not heads of committees, they are unlikely to centralize and professionalize staff that much.
So here’s a compromise: Let’s double the committee staff, and triple the money available for salaries. The committee would hire all the new staff we are calling for, and the jobs would be merit-based, high-paying positions. Half of the staff would work for the committee, under the direction of whoever was chair. But each congressional member of the committee would have one committee policy staffer detailed to her office on a two-year basis, to help the member with committee issues. Committee staff would go back and forth over time between working exclusively for the committee and working for particular members.
Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats. This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community.
A rotation system would keep the job interesting: different potential member bosses would have different priorities and different takes on issues, and provide staffers new opportunities to learn based on these different areas of focus. An assignment system could be created where staffers and congressional officers jointly rank each other and then get matched based on an algorithm, modeled after the system by which medical students get assigned to residency programs. Here, reputation matters, which means that members and staff who develop a good reputation for quality work will be more likely to get their favored assignments. In such a system, if a staffer were repeatedly ranked as a last choice by members, that staffer would be fired, preventing the accumulation of dead wood that too often plagues executive branch agencies. This is important, because meritocratic systems should have ways of removing the poorest performers.
A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee. This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trust-worthy and knowledgeable.
Unlike the GAO and the CBO, staff will have to be partisan because Congress is partisan, and always will be. But if the parties could agree to keep the staff balance the same regardless of which party controls the majority (and the committee agenda), staff can be freed up from the hiring and firing that inevitably happens when one party takes over—or even a different person within the party. This will orient the staff toward long-term policy rather than short-term politics. If they know they are going to be working on staff for a long time, they are likely to be more invested in doing things right.
Because they will tap into a network of people who know the issues really well, as well as experienced people who know each other and have been around, members of Congress will get better policy guidance than from their current staff, who are disproportionately drawn from those who volunteered on their campaign. It would be easier to detect misleading lobbyist arguments. It would also be easier to build support for policies, because the committee staff would all know each other, making it easier for them to work together—even across partisan lines.
Obviously, if individual members are bent on taking their orders from some ideologically extreme wing or some set of campaign donors, they are going to do so regardless of the advice they get from their new higher-quality committee staff. And maybe a few will continue to act this way. But our hope is that, over time, if members and committee leaders had access to high-quality staff invested in the long-term state of policy, they’d be more likely to legislate in the general interest. Perhaps even higher-quality candidates would start to run for office, knowing that being a member of Congress could actually mean serious policymaking again, working with top experts in a set of policy areas.
In September 2010, then Minority Leader John Boehner bemoaned the state of policymaking in the U.S. House: “The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas—the very lifeblood of the House—is virtually nonexistent.”
Unfortunately, when Boehner took over the majority leadership a few months later, he and his Republican colleagues did nothing to clean the lifeblood of the House. They could have made investments in policy expertise, in research and analysis, that would have made genuine deliberation both possible and meaningful. They could have supported an infrastructure that would have allowed the House to become a place where policymakers actually debate policy ideas rather than simply respond to those that are forced upon them.
Instead, Boehner and his House colleagues trumpeted their own belt tightening upon taking over the leadership in 2010 and then again in 2012. As a 2012 Congressional Management Foundation survey of congressional offices concluded, “The consensus is that the cumulative two-year cut of 11.4% will require the large majority of offices to make painful cuts that will be felt by virtually all staff.”
There’s a reason why Boehner, like Gingrich before him, would want to cut the staff of the very institution he controls. Doing so sends an empty but attention-grabbing signal to conservative base voters that the GOP leadership is serious about cutting government. Moreover, the decades-long diminishment of nonpartisan expertise in Congress has gone hand in hand with the rise of conservative power. Ideologically or lobbyist-driven legislation moves faster through the process when there are fewer knowledgeable, nonpartisan staffers asking inconvenient questions.
Convincing Republicans to reverse Congress’s institutional brain drain, then, will be an uphill fight. And doing it in a way that reduces the political-machine-like control over staff that lawmakers enjoy will meet resistance from both parties. That said, it is not impossible to imagine scenarios in which Congress would make moves in the direction we suggest.
First, after a few terms in Congress, Tea Party Republicans might come to realize that a larger staff capacity is necessary in order to engage in effective oversight of federal programs and root out waste. That’s the conclusion another conservative, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, came to before he retired this year. In a 2012 report defending the GAO, Coburn wrote, “If the GAO is compromised by excessive cuts, where else can Congress turn to find unbiased data to improve programs and save money?” Coburn estimated that every $1 spent on the GAO produces $90 in savings recommendations. At Coburn’s behest, the GAO has produced annual reports since 2011 detailing wasteful and duplicative federal programs.
A second scenario in which conservatives might find themselves drawn to the notion of building congressional capacity involves institutional relevance. Republicans are now in charge of both houses of Congress and may well continue to be beyond 2016. Democrats, meanwhile, have the executive branch and an excellent chance of holding it past 2016. Under those conditions, does it really make sense for Republicans to continue to diminish the institutional power of the branch they control? There is certainly irony in watching GOP lawmakers fulminate about abusive executive power while simultaneously cutting their own power to do anything about it, other than hold hearings that can be nothing more than pure political theater, since they largely lack the resources to back up any of their claims.
In fact, lawmakers from both parties should be motivated by the legislative branch’s own need for institutional relevance, as it was in the 1940s (when the growing capacity of the executive branch following the New Deal and World War II left it diminished in comparison) or the 1970s (when the Nixon budget impoundment crisis led to the creation of the CBO). For all that members of Congress complain about out-of-control bureaucracy (including, rightly, the many government bureaucrats who do virtually no work, but benefit from lenient worker protection rules), they do remarkably little to arm themselves to identify and fix genuine abuses.
Doing so would not be very expensive. In 2013, the funding for the entire Senate was about $820 million. The funding for the entire House was about $1.16 billion. That $2 billion a year is considerably less than any number of Pentagon project overruns—a problem, by the way, that could be significantly reduced with better legislative oversight driven by an expert staff. If Boehner were serious about making the institution function better, he might have built up expertise on the committees, as well as in legislative support organizations like the CRS, the CBO, and the GAO, that could equip Congress to do its job.
Funding for the House and Senate is only about 0.2 percent of all federal discretionary funding. So of the roughly $3,000 spent per person on government agencies and programs, we spend only $6 to oversee the other $2,994. While oversight is only one of Congress’s many jobs, with a little bit of investment into genuine oversight (as opposed to the political showmanship that now substitutes), and a less chaotic appropriations process, liberals and conservatives alike could see benefits from a better, more robust legislative branch.
Convincing Congress, especially this Congress, to invest in its own staff capacity clearly won’t be easy. But neither is it inconceivable. Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies.