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Ready for Congress 3.0?

Stuck in the 1970s? President Gerald Ford, left and then-House Majority Leader Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill share a moment in 1975. The way Congress operates is stuck in the era, argues the head of the Congressional Management Foundation. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The 2016 election year is almost upon us, but “Congress is largely still stuck in the 1970s,” argues Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation.  

Fitch, a former Hill staffer, would like to help shepherd his former employer into the modern era — "Congress 3.0," he calls it. He thinks his organization can make some headway by utilizing two multiyear grants they were just awarded to study up to 12 congressional offices, survey the constituents who interact with those offices, and come up with a best practice toolkit. “Congress 1.0 was your ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’” Fitch said, a simpler era symbolized by the 1939 Jimmy Stewart film. Congress 2.0, Fitch continued, was defined by the growth in congressional offices, both in staff size and diversity, in the 1970s.  

In 1974, Congress instituted a cap on the number of House staff at 18 full timers and four-part timers. Senate office sizes differ by state and seniority, with larger Senate offices having up to 100 staff.  

But while staff sizes have remained the same, constituencies have grown larger. Each member of Congress represents approximately 710,767 people per district, according to the 2010 census apportionment. The numbers have grown steadily over the years, as the population has grown and the number of representatives has stayed at 435.  

Fitch cited the typical congressional newsletter as looking virtually the same in 2015 as 1975. Constituent correspondence, where a legislative correspondent churns out form letters tailored to a specific issue, still remains largely formulaic.  

“The style of writing is very much a persuasion-and-research process,” Fitch said. “A constituent looks at it, and thinks, ‘I just got a form letter.’ What the office should be doing is trying to connect and build relationships.”  

Yuri Beckelman, deputy chief of staff and legislative director for Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said his office chose to participate in CMF’s study because they lacked sufficient data behind their own constituent interactions. “We really try hard to test the things we are doing,” said Beckelman. “But we don’t have the resources to get access to a lot of the projects I’d like more information on.”  

Beckelman said Takano, a former high school teacher, approaches such projects with an open mind. “He encourages discussion and he understands that when something falls a little flat, it's not because it was a bad idea, it could be because of timing,” he said. “We spend a lot of time in this office talking about creating efficiencies and how to generate meaningful connections.”  

The two grants the CMF will use to help power the project study come from The Democracy Fund and its two-year, $300,000 grant and a three-year, $450,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Madison Initiative.

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