Congress Wasn’t Always This Awful

A former Senate staffer reminds us of a time when lawmakers actually got stuff done.

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when the U.S. Congress held hearings, drafted legislation in committees, and passed public-spirited bills into law with bipartisan support. Those of us who see this as the model for how Congress should operate often harken back to the mid-1960s through the late 1970s as a kind of golden age.

When the Senate Worked for Us: The Invisible Role of Staffers in Countering Corporate Lobbies
by Michael Pertschuk
Vanderbilt University Press, 232 pp.

Michael Pertschuk was there for all of it. He arrived in Washington in 1962 as a junior staffer and worked his way up to staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee before leaving in 1977 to chair the Federal Trade Commission. His new book, When the Senate Worked for Us, is a memoir of his time as a staffer, and its thesis is straightforward: Congressional staff are really important. It was staffers like Pertschuk and his colleagues who did the hard work of shepherding consumer protection bills into laws. Lawmakers themselves—well, at least Pertschuk’s boss, Washington Senator Warren “Maggie” Magnuson—achieved their legislative legacies largely because their staff made it possible.

Pertschuk, now in his eighties, wants to inspire a younger generation. “I have been saddened,” he writes, “by how few look to government as the answer for themselves or for the country. . . . My fondest hope is that this book will awaken the interest of young people to the potential rewards of working in the federal government.”

Pertschuk’s stories do make being a congressional staffer seem exciting and rewarding. But they also reveal a political environment that was very different from today’s, one in which hard-charging do-gooder staffers had far fewer obstacles in their way, and in which a jovial but somewhat checked-out senator was comfortable delegating considerable policy development to a remarkably independent staff with little concern for fund-raising or the party brand.

So many of the details seem implausible in today’s Washington. But the comparisons are useful, because they remind us how much work it will take to build a Congress that can work for us again.

The book’s key story begins in 1962, when Magnuson, then fifty-seven, narrowly won reelection to his fourth term, receiving only 51 percent of the vote against a weak challenger. This put a scare into the senator—who had won his previous reelection with 62 percent of the vote—and his staff.

Jerry Grinstein, the hero of Pertschuk’s story, had been working as staff counsel for Magnuson on the Merchant Marine subcommittee, but in early 1963 got a promotion to staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee. His assignment was to find a way to use Magnuson’s committee chairmanship to propel him to a strong reelection in 1968.

Grinstein’s plan was to make Magnuson into a consumer champion. In the past, the senator had run as a bring-home-the-bacon kind of candidate, touting the federal dollars he had directed to Washington State’s dams and ports. But this was the early 1960s, the age of John F. Kennedy, and voters seemed to want something newer and bolder. Grinstein intuited that consumer protection was an emerging issue that fit the times. He drew up plans for a new consumer protection subcommittee within the Commerce Committee and hired Pertschuk, a young Yale Law School graduate who had recently come to Washington to work for Oregon Senator Maurine Neuberger, to a counsel position.

The first challenge was getting Magnuson to even agree to create the subcommittee, which he did reluctantly. As Pertschuk recalls, “Jerry’s task in harnessing Magnuson’s power for the public good was complicated by Magnuson’s insecurity, his resistance to change, his need to ingratiate himself even to Republican conservatives, and his preference for compromise driven by his aversion to conflict and confrontation.”

Magnuson comes across as a genial but cautious consumer champion. In Pertschuk’s telling, the important thing was that he could be prodded into doing well by doing good, presuming the incentives were cast in the right way for him. Thus, the next challenge was getting Magnuson to see that the consumer protection stuff was good politics. The first win came in 1965, when Pertschuk and Grinstein helped Magnuson shepherd into law a bill that would, for the first time, require all cigarette packages to have warning labels. After mostly favorable press coverage, “Magnuson’s image as the consumer’s champion began to glow, and his initial chill toward me melted,” Pertschuk writes. “Jerry was now freer and more able to free me and our staff colleagues to initiate (on Magnuson’s behalf) a wide range of consumer protection and other public health and public interest initiatives.”

Next came auto safety. In 1965, Ralph Nader published a scathing exposé of the auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. A year later, Congress passed the landmark National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which Pertschuk played a key role in writing. He did so with tremendous help from Nader, whose “passion and inexhaustible energy,” he writes, “was the greatest moving force behind that law.” So close were the two, Pertschuk recalls, that “apart from my wife and children, I spent more time talking with him than anyone else.” (Once, when Nader attended a birthday party for Pertschuk, Pertschuk’s wife extracted a birthday gift promise from him—to stop calling after 10 p.m.) Pertschuk’s close relationship with Nader shows that even then, congressional staff were not entirely independent, and skilled lobbyists (public interest or otherwise) could effectively serve as adjunct congressional staff.

In Pertschuk’s account of getting the vehicle safety bill passed, a few details stand out. First, the auto industry was caught flat-footed in a way no major industry would be now. General Motors’s clumsy response was to hire private detectives to try (unsuccessfully) to dig up dirt on the monkish Nader. This backfired. The publicity surrounding the ensuing harassment lawsuit was a public relations disaster for General Motors, and Nader used the $425,000 settlement to fund his growing network of watchdog groups.

Second, public interest lobbyists, led by Nader, were on roughly equal footing with industry. Pertschuk recalls how, while drafting the committee report on the bill, he had the industry lobbyist Lloyd Cutler in one adjoining room and Nader in the other. Today, the public interest side would be outgunned twenty or thirty to one by industry advocates.

Third, congressional hearings mattered. Staffers planned hearings carefully, confident that the right witnesses would matter—both in persuading senators and (more importantly) getting good press coverage. There was a genuine fact-finding quality to these hearings, a methodical building-the-case approach that today’s congressional procedures lack. Today, most hearings are merely scripted partisan theater, in which both sides present witnesses not to persuade anyone, but to generate sound bites; everybody’s mind is already made up.

Finally, in the current climate, party branding and messaging dominate congressional decisionmaking. In the 1960s, partisan identity was less central, and candidates ran on their personal brand. So it really did matter what individual members did in Congress.

As 1968 loomed, onlookers, and Magnuson himself, thought the big threat to Magnuson’s reelection was the popular Republican governor, Daniel Evans. Privately, Grinstein knew that Evans didn’t want to run for the Senate. But he wanted to make sure Magnuson didn’t find that out. Otherwise, he worried, the senator would lose interest in consumer protection.

In 1968, Magnuson ran on the campaign slogan “Keep the big boys honest. Let’s keep Maggie in the Senate.” His campaign staff put up billboards triumphing his consumer protection laws. But, Pertschuk writes, Maggie was uneasy. “I like it,” he told the staff. “But how come [the message is] all on consumers? . . . How about something like education and civil rights and ‘Veetnam’?” An adviser asked him what he had done on those issues. He was silent.

Magnuson won reelection, and soon after, Pertschuk became staff director of the Commerce Committee, which Magnuson continued to chair. The senator trusted Pertschuk, but seemed increasingly checked out (among other things, he was drinking more and more vodka). Magnuson’s standard direction was “Do what you think is right—so long as you don’t get me into trouble.”

By the early 1970s, Pertschuk had assembled a large staff with growing policy expertise, broad alliances inside and outside the institution, and a strong esprit de corps. The staff members called themselves “Bumblebees”—an epithet bestowed on the young staffers by John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, who complained about all the new regulatory laws Magnuson’s staffers generated.

Pertschuk recalls the work of the committee in the 1970s as a series of vignettes, recalling a cast of savvy and enterprising staffers and the public interest bills they ushered into law. Take, for example, Manny Rouvelas, a counsel on the Merchant Marine subcommittee. Rouvelas took it upon himself to learn about the safety and environmental hazards of ocean shipping, then decided he had to do something about it. When an oil spill at an Atlantic Richfield Refinery in Cherry Point, Washington, threatened to pollute Puget Sound, Rouvelas had his opportunity to get Magnuson engaged.

Rouvelas skillfully organized hearings on maritime safety and pushed for new vessel construction requirements. The requirements were opposed by both big oil companies and foreign governments, because it meant they’d have to spend huge sums on upgrading the safety of their ships. Even the State Department, at the prodding of foreign governments, opposed the bill. But Rouvelas helped speed passage of the provisions through the committee before committee members could be swayed by the official State Department opposition. Magnuson fought hard, and when Nixon signed the Ports and Waterways Safety Act in 1972, it included the safety requirements Rouvelas had secured.

“The longer we stayed,” Pertschuk writes, “the more useful to the committee we became.” Experience mattered, and staffers then had far more of it than now because they stuck around much longer. The more expertise the staff accrued, the more Magnuson relied on them—to the point where, Pertschuk writes, the senator sometimes “even reluctantly agreed to introduce a bill that we pressed him on, despite harboring serious doubts about it.”

Was this increasingly blind trust a good thing? In practice, with a large and entrepreneurial staff, it worked well. When I worked as a Senate staffer, in 2009–10, most senators I encountered also relied deeply on their staff and delegated considerable policy development to them. The ideal of the well-informed senator, carefully weighing all aspects of policy and debating it with colleagues, existed only rarely. More common was staffers working out policies and then filtering them up to their bosses in ways that gave the latter the final sense of agency. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is the relatively uncrowded lobbying and media ecosystem of the 1960s. Much of the public interest legislation history of the 1960s and ’70s involved a nexus of public interest advocates, respected mainstream journalists, and congressional staffers working together to amplify the case for their law, with a handful of lobbyists struggling to respond. It is now much more difficult for messages to break through. In 1961, only 130 corporations had registered lobbyists in Washington; today, more than 4,000 companies do.

Pertschuk’s stories make being a congressional staffer seem exciting and rewarding. But they also reveal a political environment that was very different from today’s, one in which hard-charging do-gooder staffers had far fewer obstacles in their way.

Second, the demands of fund-raising are very different now. Pertschuk suspects that some of Magnuson’s hesitation was due to his “hearing complaints from his corporate friends and advisors.” When it came time to fund-raise in 1967, he held a single $100-a-plate event, with 2,300 guests. “At the time it was almost certainly among the largest recorded hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners in the history of US politics,” Pertschuk writes. It was an impressive haul—about $1.8 million in today’s dollars. But that kind of event wasn’t as constant a presence back then as it is today, when the cost of an average Senate race is over $10 million (competitive ones cost more), and candidates are expected to fund-raise for their party as well. Most campaign money comes from very rich people, largely related to corporate businesses. In today’s fund-raising environment, it’s hard to imagine Magnuson letting his staff turn him into a champion of consumer protection. Facing a close reelection, he would have had to focus more on raising money, surrounding himself with the donors who would have told him to cool his consumer protection jets.

Finally, Congress just has fewer staff positions than it used to. In 1975, Pertschuk’s Commerce Committee had 112 staffers, which increased to 162 by 1985. By 2015, staffing on the committee had fallen to eighty-three. In the Senate, staffing levels stagnated in the 1980s and have declined slowly since. House staffing levels underwent an even sharper decline after Newt Gingrich became speaker in the 1990s and slashed committee budgets. Neither chamber has recovered. Nonpartisan sources of expertise in Congress have also declined. The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, which provide nonpartisan policy and program analysis to lawmakers, now employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979.

Some of this is the consequence of party leaders centralizing resources in order to ensure that they control the process. Some is a consequence of conservative small-government dogma and an unwillingness of members of Congress to defend their own institution. The upshot is that more and more policymaking is outsourced to the phalanxes of lobbyists who surround Capitol Hill, since they’re now the ones with the expertise, resources, and time to develop and build support for policies.

When the Senate Worked for Us is a helpful reminder that Congress didn’t always look the way it does now. A remarkable number of bright and talented young people still want to work in Congress, and do—it’s not that nobody wants the job. But few people stick around like Pertschuk and his Bumblebees did. In part they leave because the pay has gotten worse, and in part because there are simply fewer and fewer opportunities to do much of significance. A gridlocked Congress is a frustrating place to work, as is one in which party leaders dominate policymaking. Change that, and perhaps a new generation of Bumblebees will fly again.

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America and a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly.