Recently, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced a new project to re-invigorate the first branch of government. “The premise of the Article I Project is simple,” he explained in a statement . “The federal government is broken, and congressional weakness is to blame.”
Lee is among a growing number of conservatives who have come to see congressional dysfunction is a problem of Congress’s own making, and who wants to do something about it. Yet, for all the growing interest in “restoring congressional power,” there’s something fundamentally missing from these plans – the capacity to actually do it.
Congress relies on staff. And yet, over the last several decades, and particularly the last few years, Congress has steadily disinvested in staff. More than ever, congressional offices lack experienced people who have the institutional knowledge and policy know-how to do much more than react and play defense.
Consider the following changes between 2009 and 2013, based on Congressional Research Service reports (Salaries are listed in constant dollars).
- Median pay for House "legislative director" positions declined from $93,013 to $81,177, down 13 percent.
- Median pay for House "legislative assistant" positions declined from $55,643 to $48,622, down 13 percent.
- Median pay for Senate "legislative director" positions declined from $148,288 to $131,912, down 11 percent.
- Median pay for Senate "legislative assistant" positions declined from $72,859 to $66,606 down 9 percent.
In a 2010 survey , the Congressional Management Foundation found only half of House legislative directors had been in their position for more than three years, and only 20 percent had been in their position for more than six. As one congressional staffer surveyed tartly put it : “If you wanted a legislative branch run by K Street lobbyists and 25-year-old staffers, mission accomplished.”
A Congress that doesn’t invest in its own staff capacity is a Congress that increasingly relies on outside lobbyists to function. As one staffer-turned-lobbyist told me in interviews for my book, The Business of America is Lobbying , “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.”
Young staff are expected to be experts on dozens of issues. But they can’t be. So they turn to the lobbyists who eager to help them explain the issues, and maybe even write them a few bills and letters and speeches.
Smart staffers will say that they try to hear from all sides on issues. But the reality is that often, one side is far more thorough in its lobbying efforts than the other. By my count, for every $1 spent on lobbying by public interest groups and labor unions combined, businesses and business associations spend $34 . Mostly, these groups are lobbying for very narrow policy goals.
While resources are not destiny, they certainly help. And while lobbyists certainly provide valuable information and expertise, a policy process that has become overly dependent on unelected interests is a dereliction of democracy.
Congress now spends about $2 billion to fund the entire House and Senate. Compare that to $3.2 billion in reported lobbying expenditures. Or a $3.7 trillion federal budget . The House now has fewer staff than it had in 1980 . The Senate has only increased its staff by 5 percent since 1994 . Overall, Congress has about a third fewer committee staff than it had in 1980. And the staff it does have are younger and less experienced.
Understandably, members of Congress are loath to expand their own staffs, knowing the wide disregard in which the public holds Congress. But somebody is going to be writing policy and making laws.
Either it will be lobbyists representing primarily narrow corporate interests, or it will be by publicly-paid staffers with much more independence, and who work under the direction of democratically-elected public representatives, and are much more likely to think in general-interest terms.
As House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., put it at a House Administration hearing last year, “To attract and retain quality staff, the committee must be able to offer compensation that is at least somewhat competitive with the private sector.” Goodlatte is right. Congress needs to pay its staff members more. It also needs to hire more of them.
The persistent joke in Washington is that we have the best democracy money can buy. But the reality is precisely the opposite. We’ve been doing Congress on the cheap for three and a half decades. And increasingly, we get what we pay for. If Congress is going to restore its own power and deliver on its constitutional responsibility, it needs to invest in people. It’s that simple.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, and the author of "The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate". Twitter: @leedrutm
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