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Congress Wasn't Always This Awful

Lee Drutmanreviewed Michael Pertschuk's latest book about Congress in the November/December issue of Washington Monthly. 

What has changed is the relatively uncrowded lobbying and media ecosystem of the 1960s. Much of the public interest legislation history of the 1960s and ’70s involved a nexus of public interest advocates, respected mainstream journalists, and congressional staffers working together to amplify the case for their law, with a handful of lobbyists struggling to respond. It is now much more difficult for messages to break through. In 1961, only 130 corporations had registered lobbyists in Washington; today, more than 4,000 companies do.
Second, the demands of fund-raising are very different now. Pertschuk suspects that some of Magnuson’s hesitation was due to his “hearing complaints from his corporate friends and advisors.” When it came time to fund-raise in 1967, he held a single $100-a-plate event, with 2,300 guests. “At the time it was almost certainly among the largest recorded hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners in the history of US politics,” Pertschuk writes. It was an impressive haul—about $1.8 million in today’s dollars. But that kind of event wasn’t as constant a presence back then as it is today, when the cost of an average Senate race is over $10 million (competitive ones cost more), and candidates are expected to fund-raise for their party as well. Most campaign money comes from very rich people, largely related to corporate businesses. In today’s fund-raising environment, it’s hard to imagine Magnuson letting his staff turn him into a champion of consumer protection. Facing a close reelection, he would have had to focus more on raising money, surrounding himself with the donors who would have told him to cool his consumer protection jets.
Finally, Congress just has fewer staff positions than it used to. In 1975, Pertschuk’s Commerce Committee had 112 staffers, which increased to 162 by 1985. By 2015, staffing on the committee had fallen to eighty-three. In the Senate, staffing levels stagnated in the 1980s and have declined slowly since. House staffing levels underwent an even sharper decline after Newt Gingrich became speaker in the 1990s and slashed committee budgets. Neither chamber has recovered. Nonpartisan sources of expertise in Congress have also declined. The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, which provide nonpartisan policy and program analysis to lawmakers, now employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979.
Some of this is the consequence of party leaders centralizing resources in order to ensure that they control the process. Some is a consequence of conservative small-government dogma and an unwillingness of members of Congress to defend their own institution. The upshot is that more and more policymaking is outsourced to the phalanxes of lobbyists who surround Capitol Hill, since they’re now the ones with the expertise, resources, and time to develop and build support for policies.
When the Senate Worked for Us is a helpful reminder that Congress didn’t always look the way it does now. A remarkable number of bright and talented young people still want to work in Congress, and do—it’s not that nobody wants the job. But few people stick around like Pertschuk and his Bumblebees did. In part they leave because the pay has gotten worse, and in part because there are simply fewer and fewer opportunities to do much of significance. A gridlocked Congress is a frustrating place to work, as is one in which party leaders dominate policymaking. Change that, and perhaps a new generation of Bumblebees will fly again.