Every congressional and presidential aspirant is constitutionally bound to give a “Washington is broken” speech at some point during his or her campaign. Washington’s just awful, but boy are they in a hurry to get there so they can fix things up real nice. Why is it broken? “Out of touch” politicians, “too much money in politics,” etc.
These things are surely true. But specifics would be helpful. Building on the work of New America and others, the Washington Monthly has dedicated an article from their current issue (and a cover story from last year) to addressing one of the underlying (but under-discussed) problems plaguing Washington: Congress’s decreased capacity to handle complex issues.
Starting with Reagan, but really ramping up during the Gingrich and Tea Party years, Republicans have repeatedly slashed the budget for the internal staff and agencies within Congress that provide the institutional knowledge, oversight, and analysis crucial to good legislating. These cuts occurred just as constituent needs and special interest lobbying skyrocketed.
So what got cut, and what was the impact?
There’s the General Accounting Office (GAO), which investigates how taxpayer money is spent and makes recommendations for reducing waste and inefficiency. By one former senator’s estimate, the GAO provides $90 in recommended savings for every dollar spent on the agency. There’s the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that provides congressmembers and their staff with independent, non-partisan analysis. These agencies have lost a fifth of their staff in the last 20+ years (totaling thousands of jobs). Then there was the Office of Technology Assessment, which helped Congress utilize and evaluate emerging technologies (and was later emulated by countries around the world). Gingrich shut it down.
Also important are the committee staff jobs. These positions offer a more competitive wage than many of the jobs within congressional offices, allow staffers to stay with a committee long enough to develop expertise (learning both policy and the political hurdles that must be cleared to actually pass legislation), and provide long-term career paths for Congress’s top talent. Since 1993, committee staff have been cut by a third.
In addition, members of Congress have not been provided enough of their own staff to help analyze increasingly complex policy issues and handle constituent needs that have multiplied ever since the internet and email made it a lot easier to contact your congressmember. And the staffers they do have are looking at low pay, long hours and fewer opportunities for advancement, leaving many of them to view their time in Congress as a brief stepping stone to more lucrative lobbying work, rather than a career.
With fewer internal tools and resources available, overstretched congressional offices have, by necessity, outsourced more and more of their policy analysis to think tanks and advocacy groups (who obviously have their own agendas). Imagine you are a congressional staffer trying to understand the enormously complex Dodd-Frank bill, for instance. Outside of the banking industry, who has the expertise to help you grasp the finer points of the law?
This is the successful conservative formula. Cut government spending, cut government’s ability to make good decisions and execute ideas well, and then complain that government stinks. Making budget cuts works well symbolically, hinders government’s ability to do things you don’t want it to do, and allows you to weaken or undermine any nonpartisan analysis that doesn’t support your policy objectives.
As the WaMo article points out, it’s not like Congress was some idyllic problem-solving institution back when they had more adequate staff. But if you want congressmembers to make independent, informed policy decisions without leaning on special interest expertise, you need to give them the resources to do so.
If you told the partners of a law firm you wanted them to serve far more clients, but for less pay and with fewer legal specialists and paralegals to provide assistance, would you expect them to get better results? Why would you expect the government to function any differently?