Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part II: How Congress Broke Itself

How can Congress get out of the mess it finds itself in? The approach I suggest is to provide Members and staff greater tools and resources do to their jobs. This will enable them to think long term and remove their undue reliance on special interests dedicated to the status quo. In an era where Congress will not spend more money on itself, resources can be freed up by moving Congress into the information age.

For that to be possible, we must answer difficult questions. What are the incentives and choices affecting legislators as legislators? What internal constraints push members of Congress and their staff act as they do? How do you help members of Congress think of themselves collectively as the first branch of government? How do you create enough space so Congress becomes capable of healing itself?

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Few members of Congress have an incentive to think deeply about Congress as an institution. Some look to Congress as a step to greater political power or increased wealth. Most others, however, are public servants who are too busy to do more than meet immediate needs. Collaboration with other representatives occurs on an ad hoc basis, when immediate interests coincide. Executive branch oversight is left to committee leadership that often focuses myopically on scoring petty political points and the fundraising necessary to keep their leadership role. Matters of internal congressional operations are neglected or kept status quo because little political incentive exists to make things better … or because it reinforces the political regime in power.

Members of Congress lack sufficient resources to run their own offices. They are forced to lean on lobbyists for help. In fact, Congress no longer is capable of operating without the resources lobbyists bring to policymaking. Lobbyists spend as much money lobbying government as the federal government spends on Congress. Congressional agendas are set by lobbyists who bring issues to congressional attention, not a systematic assessment by Congress of what is important. Moreover, sweeping cuts to the number and quality of staff in the House and Senate, driven by huge cuts to Congress’ operating budget, force Members and staff to turn to others for help understanding simple issues and accomplishing basic tasks.

For example, the number of House committee staff dropped by 38% from 1979 to 2005, by more than 700 people; Senate committee staff is down by 32%. Legislative support agencies were hit hard, too. In addition, turnover rates among the staff remaining is driven in part by low wages combined with the ability to cash in — they can earn more money and work less hard in the private sector. Pay for staff has stagnated over the last few decades while Washington became the most expensive city in the U.S. to raise a family.

Congressional offices themselves seem designed to thwart productivity. The available technology is antiquated, with arcane rules governing its use. Congress hardly has benefited from the information revolution that transformed all other sectors of our society. And the physical work space is beyond cramped, with staff crammed into noisy, tiny rooms.

Many members of Congress are aware of the constraints on their productivity. They are hemmed in, however, by a political inability to spend sufficient funds on the operations of Congress, no matter how reasonable. And it is that inability to appropriate sufficient resources which, in many instances, is a cause of much of their suffering. But there is a bargain to be had.

Next: Bootstrapping Congress Into the Digital Age →

← Previous: A Thought Experiment on our Broken Legislature

Part I, published yesterday, describes a thought experiment on legislative dysfunction. Part III, set for publication tomorrow, explains how to bootstrap Congress into the digital age. And Part IV, scheduled for Thursday, sets forth concrete ideas on the way forward towards a stronger Congress.

— Written by Daniel Schuman