Earlier this month, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on improving staffing capacity and policy expertise in Congress. A major theme of this discussion was the historical loss of congressional staff capacity, and how to address it.
Indeed, committees, personal offices, and support agencies in the legislative branch are far weaker than they once were. Over the past quarter century, committees have lost over 1,000 staff positions, and support agencies have lost over 2,500.
Reflecting this capacity loss, sometimes referred to as the “big lobotomy,” Members of Congress can be seen routinely struggling with complex technical issues, and offices have trouble staying on top of their legislative and oversight responsibilities. The end result is that more policy decision making is outsourced to the administrative state, where it is less responsive to democratic forces, and has limited oversight. As the Cato Institute’s William Yeatman put it, Congress’ institutional weakness “is a growing threat to liberty.”
Similarly, in a time when a more conservative judiciary seems interested in reexamining questions affecting the balance between our tripartite branches, such as Chevron deference and the nondelegation doctrine, Congress’ institutional weakness may make them wary.
To reverse this capacity loss and implement other institutional reforms, including those advanced by the Select Committee, Congress needs more funding. A recent letter that I helped organize argued for a 10% increase, which would be a significant starting point. This would help fill near term gaps to fix buildings, upgrade IT infrastructure, and hire a few more staff.
But in the medium term, policymakers need to look seriously at adding $3-6 billion to Congress’ budget. New funding should address longstanding staff pay and retention issues, and prioritize adding new senior staff positions in committees, the Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office. This capacity will allow Congress to take over more policymaking responsibilities from the executive branch, dedicate more time and resources to oversight, and legislate with greater expertise and authority.
While the political challenges are hard, the Select Committee hearing gives us a reason to be optimistic. In particular, Rep. William Timmons (R-SC) framed the issue well for conservatives interested in limited government:
I tend to think [a 10% increase] is insufficient…I think that we need to really look hard at this issue because we got $30 trillion worth of debt, we're gonna have to have substantial cuts. We're gonna have to do some pretty painful things. We need to invest in the people that will be responsible for those decisions, and need to make sure that we have the best people looking at this issue. So I really do appreciate Mr. Chairman hosting this conversation and I hope that we can find a way to appropriately fund the legislative branch with this the work we're doing here in the next few years could make or break our country.
Still, there are many barriers to building a stronger and more expert Congress. In particular, there are two key factors that led us to where we are: 1) the politicization of congressional funding; and 2) growing resource demands for non-policy work.
The Politics of Congressional Funding
Congress’ weakness is often traced back to the platform of the Republican Revolution and its ascendance in the mid-90s. In 1995, Republicans successfully took over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, after campaigning on downsizing Congress and eliminating waste. When in power, they delivered, reducing staffing across the institution and moving to consolidate more power in leadership. This dropoff can be seen in the charts below.
Data from the Congressional Research Service
Data from the Brookings Institution Vital Statistics on Congress. Does not include all support agencies.
Part of the revolutionaries’ strategy was that “cutting Congress first” would convey moral authority to pursue larger cuts to the executive branch, including the elimination of entire cabinet agencies. While their plans never materialized, Members of Congress discovered that cutting their own budgets was an easy way to signal fiscal conservative bona fides without having to take hard votes to cancel school lunch programs or slash entitlement benefits.
This political environment persists today, with politicians like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., holding press conferences featuring Publishers Clearing House-style checks of unspent office funds (to be fair, Democrats return office funds too, albeit with less showmanship). Such stunts are not really about principled fiscal conservatism (as the Washington Post notes, these funds never make it back to taxpayers). The bottom line is that abolishing the entire legislative branch would not amount to a rounding error in our $4 trillion federal budget. Cuts to Congress mean delegating more important decisions to unelected bureaucrats, while undermining any meaningful oversight they might have.
Given that the Government Accountability Office reported a savings of $338 for every dollar of its budget last year, slashing their staff, as we did in the 90s, hardly seems like a fiscally responsible move. Similarly, Sen. Paul would serve taxpayers better by hiring competent staff to advance his vision for a leaner government.
It is not all Newt Gingrich’s fault, of course. Members of Congress giving themselves a pay raise will never be popular, particularly given Congress’ historically weak approval ratings. It should be no surprise that they have had a pay freeze in place for the past decade. A bipartisan effort to break this last year fell apart, derailing the appropriations bill for multiple months in the process.
While it is hard to feel sorry for someone making $174,000 a year, consider they also have to maintain two residences, resulting in about 100 of them sleeping in their offices. Higher compensation also affects the kind of talent we can attract and retain to the office, and reduces opportunities for corruption. In Singapore—a country widely admired for its good governance and ranked by the Heritage Foundation as the world’s freest economy—ministerial compensation is commonly in the seven figures. Member pay is also a ceiling on how much staff can be paid, including expensive specialists in areas like cyber security.
Paying congressional staff more is similarly contentious. The $50,000 median salary for a legislative assistant (a junior to mid-level policy role) in the House may seem generous to many Americans, as it is more than the median household income in much of the country. But context is important. For one thing, the cost of living in DC is very high (GSA gives it a +31% adjustment). Additionally, LAs are high-skilled workers with career options. According to a 2019 House compensation study, LAs earn a little over half the comparable salary for executive branch employees. They can expect to earn even more moving to K Street to lobby their former colleagues. These forces contribute to Congress’ high staff turnover and weak institutional knowledge, empowering lobbyists and executive agencies, and placing billion dollar decisions in the hands of overworked, underpaid 20-somethings.
Growing Non-Policy Resource Demands
In addition to pressure to reduce spending on Congress, different forces have pulled institutional resources away from policy work. In committees, more staff have shifted to communications roles. In personal offices, more resources have shifted to constituent services and communications. Particularly as growing populations and digital media have lowered barriers to engagement and created more work.
For instance, according to a Congressional Management Foundation report, Congress received four times as many communications in 2004 than in 1995. This trend can be seen in the increased share of staff in district offices, which focus on constituent services. Between 1979 and 2016, the percentage of Senate staff in state offices rose from 24% to 43%. Over the same period, the share of House staff in district offices grew from 35% to 47%. Legislative staff are also spending an increasing share of their time on constituent work.
Within the legislative branch budget, a growing share of costs have been driven by non-policy entities. For instance, since 1996, expenditures by the Architect of the Capitol —the entity which maintains the U.S. Capitol Complex—went up by 383%. Similarly, expenditures by the Capitol Police increased by 292%. Meanwhile, GAO went up only 3.2%, House committees 2.5%, and the allocation for House personal offices (called the Members' Representational Allowance) decreased by 15%, even as the U.S. population has grown (about 23% nationally).
Data from Daniel Schuman at Demand Progress. Does not include all budget components. Shown in 2019 dollars.
Over this period, non-defense discretionary spending has increased by 55% in real dollars, while legislative branch funding grew at half that rate. Over the past 10 years, the average annual change to the legislative budget has been -0.34%. Meaning Congress is doing less with less.
In practice, this means that efforts to increase policy expertise in Congress are operating under a zero sum environment where you have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Such efforts to build capacity must get in line behind collapsing buildings, heightened security needs, long-delayed IT upgrades, and so forth. Since few were around to remember when a more functional Congress was like, there is a general sense of complacency about the status quo.
Hacking the Vicious Cycle
To solve the expertise gap, and restore balance to the First Branch, one has to fix the funding environment. In practice, this means changing political incentives both inside and outside the institution.
But first, it is important to understand how funding for Congress is determined. Federal spending is generally divided into two categories: mandatory spending and discretionary spending. The top line number for discretionary spending is called the 302(a) allocation, which is determined by a budget resolution passed by the House and Senate. The full appropriations committees in each chamber—in consultation with leadership—further divides this into buckets that correspond to the different appropriations subcommittees. These are called 302(b) sub-allocations.
The total legislative branch budget, aside from a few incidentals like donations to the Library of Congress, is determined by its 302(b) sub-allocation. For FY 2019, $1.24 trillion was allocated to the 12 appropriations committees. $4.8 billion of this, or 0.38%, went to the legislative branch.
Inside the institution, the legislative branch subcommittees are the red-headed stepchildren among the appropriations subcommittees, and its members have little incentive to push for substantial reform. Chairs are typically less experienced and eager to move up to a higher rung on the power ladder. As Georgetown University’s Matt Glassman put it, “chairmanship of Leg Branch is not a particularly coveted position,” noting that it offers little influence over federal spending, does not help Members build capital with interest groups or exchange favors with their peers, and rarely offers good press opportunities back home. Glassman concludes, “incentives for individual Members do not align-well with the vigorous care and upkeep of the institution.” Congressional leadership and a broader range of Members will need to take an active part in working to change this dynamic and overcome existing incentives. The work of the Select Committee, and other reform committees in the past, have shown that this is possible.
Outside the institution, Members face pressure from bad press coverage as well as activist groups. While Democrats are more open to increasing spending, they fear being attacked from the right on fiscal issues, and similarly lack incentives to stick their necks out for the institution. But just as much of the bad politics of congressional spending originated with the right, there is reason to think conservatives can help change it. Prominent conservative lawmakers like Sen. Mike Lee have shown a strong interest in strengthening Article I. Numerous right-leaning groups—including FreedomWorks, R Street Institute, the Cato Institute, the National Taxpayers Union, and others—have developed research and advocacy materials pushing to make Congress stronger. This is also reflected in work by prominent conservative intellectuals like AEI’s Yuval Levin, whose book, A Time to Build, makes a similar argument about restoring Congress.
Conservative champions like these can push back against their less-informed peers, and help make space for liberal lawmakers to push for greater reforms without being attacked from the right (a dynamic that can be seen in the failed effort to enact a COLA increase in 2019). However, just like with Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker, it is important to understand Nancy Pelosi is incentivized to keep Congress weak. Having underfunded personal offices and committees means that she can run the House without significant opposition. She becomes more powerful, but the House is weaker for it. In this respect, reform efforts will need to be driven by an alliance of progressives and conservatives, rather than centrists courting the establishment.
While the politics are challenging with a Republican in the White House during a global pandemic, with a likely shift in the next election, there may be a real opportunity to build bipartisan consensus for investing in Congress. While it is a heavy lift and may take multiple years of incremental progress, now is the time to shift the conversation, and the politics, around restoring the First Branch to its rightful constitutional role.