March 20, 2017
Lee Drutman was featured in the March 20, 2017 issue of CQ Roll Call magazine for his Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group with Kevin Kosar:
Its name is a mouthful, but the Legislative Branch
Capacity Working Group has gained a following for
its mission to strengthen a polarized and unpopular
The founders come from think tanks in different positions
on the political spectrum. Kevin Kosar spent 11 years
at the Congressional Research Service before leaving for
the “free market” R Street Institute. Lee Drutman is a senior
fellow at the more liberal New America.
But their joint concern for the health of Congress gave
them a common cause. They’re focused on bringing together
congressional staff from the right, left and center
who care about the institution and want to brainstorm ways
to improve it.
The Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group’s slogan
borrows from one of the most famous in recent American
political history, edited with its own quirk: Make Congress Great Again. Kosar and Drutman handed
out their own version of red hats with their
inscription at the end of a February meeting.
An attendee donned a cap as he left what’s
become a regular series of lunch discussions
on policy, this time on the subject of lawmakers’
role in regulations.
It was a subject that could put some people
to sleep, but the group of about 50 attendees
watched intently as Kosar, Drutman, R Street
colleague C. Jarrett Dieterle and Brookings
Institution senior fellow Philip Wallach gave
presentations on the relationship between
federal regulators and Congress.
Staff members who work for both Republicans
and Democrats debated the role and
legislative options for lawmakers to guide,
oversee and influence regulations. Opinions
ran the gamut. CQ Magazine was invited to
the meeting on the condition staffers couldn’t
be quoted so they could debate freely.
The group’s following has grown on Capitol
Hill, but it’s been a relatively staff-driven
affair, with meetings since May 2016.
They’ve kept returning to the question of
what should Congress decide it should do,
and can it do it.
“There’s sort of this ongoing conversation,
where we’re constantly thinking about
ways to give Congress more capacity or get
Congress to take more responsibility and
ownership of its role as the first branch of government,”
Drutman, a former congressional
fellow, says after the meeting. “And there’s often
some version of the same question that’s
raised, which is, ‘Well, if you give Congress
this power, will they use it responsibly?’ ”
Congress is now dysfunctional and split
into partisan camps, he says. “I think one of
the challenges we face is, how can Congress
imagine itself as something other than it is
now?” Drutman says.
That is a challenge that Congress might
be wise to take up. The legislative branch
has dipped to near historic lows in terms
of popularity lately, though a small bounceupward was observed post-election. A Real
Clear Politics average of polls of congressional
job approval from mid-January through
early March shows an average of just under
23 percent of the U.S. population approves of
the job lawmakers are doing in Washington.
Generally, approval has been sliding since
the early 2000s.
And those inside don’t feel much better
about the institution.
“There was that diffuse sense that I think
Kevin and I both picked up on in our conversations,
that Congress should be something
more,” Drutman says. “But before we started
this group there was no central node for
people who felt that way to kind of come together.”
Kosar says: “I’m on the right and Lee’s
on the left, but if you read the raw numbers,
staffing is down — support agencies,
committees — yet government is bigger and
more complex. That is just a formula for an
incapacitated Congress, essentially.”
But the control is at lawmakers’ fingertips.
“There are very few institutions in society —
I can’t think of another — that gets to decide
on its own budget,” Drutman says. “They
are shortchanging themselves.”
The numbers show Congress certainly
has put itself on a diet as it tightens the rest
of the annual budget.
Comprising one of the 12 spending bills
Congress is supposed to send to the president
each year to fund the government, the
Legislative Branch appropriations bill funding
the House, Senate and its various institutions
makes up just 0.4 percent of the entire
As the Congressional Research Service
notes, funding hit a peak in fiscal 2010 at
$4.67 billion. In fiscal 2016, lawmakers
provided $4.36 billion. Lawmakers are still
negotiating the final fiscal 2017 level, as the
government operates under a stopgap funding
bill through April 28. Lawmakers cut
more than $300 million in just six years.
Now, Kosar and Drutman see an opportunity
for the institution to take a look at itself.
And the presidency of Donald Trump, Drutman
says, “makes Congress feel a lot more
“We’re not pushing a set of solutions — we’re asking a set of questions about how
Congress can better do its job,” Kosar says in
his R Street Institute office a couple months
prior to the meeting. “This is about fostering
a social movement on the Hill itself.”
Drutman and Kosar hatched the idea for
the group in an informal way: they swapped
tweets and then got coffee.
“I had become interested in this issue of
congressional capacity a long time ago,”
Drutman says, recounting conversations
with congressional staffers about the powerful
influence of lobbyists.
He described how staffers, who often
work “incredibly long hours,” rely on the
subject matter expertise of those off the Hill
because there’s simply not enough time for
them to know all they need to know.
“I kept saying if you’re concerned about
lobbyist influence, you should invest in congressional
capacity,” Drutman adds.
The focus turned to how to improve the
institution of Congress itself. An R Street
event in December 2016 where Drutman,
Kosar and others debated “Restoring Congress
as the First Branch of Government”
had drawn a crowd of more than a hundred.
Clearly an interest was out there, but not a
whole lot of political action, so they saw an
“In many ways, when it comes to the
workings of an institution, there weren’t
many partisan talking points,” Kosar says.
“There weren’t talking points, so it’s a really
ripe place to start talking about reform.”
Eventually, the two settled on a name
and Kosar bought a web domain. The first
meeting had lawmakers from opposite ends
of the political spectrum, something Kosar
described as a deliberate move to demonstrate
that he and Drutman were dedicated
to keeping the group nonpartisan.
Virginia Republican Rep. Dave Brat and
Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes
both came to speak and it brought a big
crowd from across the political spectrum.
The next month, people came back.
“Then it became, well, of course we’re going
to keep doing this,” Kosar says.
Drutman and Kosar say that broadly, they
want to open people’s minds to a different
way of thinking about Congress. They’ve
seen that many on the Hill assume today’s
Congress has always been this way — something
aided by high turnover of young staff,
lawmakers who haven’t been around long
and persistent political gridlock.
Their hope is the conversations can
change people’s perspective, and that their
efforts can continue to spread among people
who make the institution work. Kosar notes
that some 450 people subscribe to their blog,
legbranch.com. People have “cribbed” the
“Make Congress Great Again” slogan in articles
and elsewhere, Kosar says.
For him, it’s a “long game” to get people
to value making the institution better. The
goals are more people at the meetings, more
people talking about capacity and a push
for adequate resources to do the jobs Congress
imposes on itself, Kosar explains, but
none of that comes quickly. He notes a victory
with the fiscal 2016 spending bill, which
contained a slight increase for Legislative
“So, shoots of green,” Kosar says. But it
will take time to win the fight against what
he characterizes as “an element of learned
helplessness occurring on the Hill” amid the
“You don’t have to assume that this is imposed
from without and that there’s nothing
to be done,” he says. “So then the question
is well, it doesn’t have to be this way — how
could it be?”
Longtime staffers who worked on the Hill
during different eras come to the meetings
to find answers to that question.
“There’s been good interest across party
lines, across chambers, across a wide range
of folks outside of Congress as well,” Kosar
says. “It’s one of those things where you talk
to anybody about it, they kind of get it immediately.”