Congress Should Improve Oversight Capacity And Reduce Its Reliance On Lobbyists

Inadequate Staffing and High Turnover in Congressional Offices Makes Lobbyists Too Powerful

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A group of experts and close observers of Congress today sent a letter urging Congress to form a Joint Committee on the Capacity of Congress to examine and improve congressional operation, which is suffering from understaffing and underfunding.

“Congress has been doing government on the cheap for decades. And we get what we pay for,” the letter says. “As the richest nation in the world, we can and should afford to spend a little more to make sure we have some of the smartest, most experienced people in the world making our laws.”

Since 1980, staffing in the House has declined, and since 1994, staffing in the Senate has remained mostly stagnant. The number of staff devoted to policy has also decreased, especially in the U.S. House where committee staffing is about half of what it was in 1980.

Despite employing fewer people, salaries in constant dollars for the average Counsel, Legislative Director, and Legislative Assistant positions in both the House and Senate have also decreased by 9 to 20 percent between 2009 and 2013.

The result of inadequate staffing and funding is a legislative branch incapable of accumulating enough institutional knowledge to be effective, and staffers who are more reliant than ever on lobbyists to help them understand basic details of policy.

Signing the letter are Lee Drutman of New America, Meredith McGehee of Campaign Legal Center, Kevin Kosar of R Street Institute, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The letter recommends the newly proposed Joint Committee on Congressional Capacity:

  • Review and make recommendations on staffing levels for committees and personal offices
  • Review salaries and provide guidance to Senators and Representatives on regularizing staff pay
  • Hold at least two public hearings to hear from outside experts and interested parties on staffing and salaries
  • Issue a public report on its recommended changes

The letter was sent to the Congressional leadership with copies to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Appropriations Committees, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Rules Committee and House Committee on Administration.

The following quotes can be attributed to Meredith McGehee and Lee Drutman, respectively:

“Too often, going to work on the Hill is seen as a way to get your ticket punched on your way to a lucrative career on K St.,” said Campaign Legal Center’s Policy Director Meredith McGehee. “As a result of low pay and inadequate staffing levels, turnover among congressional staff is too high. This lack of internal capacity empowers lobbyists since they are who the staff turns to for policy expertise.”

"With the looming specter of a Trump presidency, the case for building congressional capacity has never been stronger,” said Lee Drutman, senior fellow in New America’s Political Reform Program. “Congress is the first branch of government, and the natural check on a dangerous executive. Yet Congress has spent decades cutting its own capacity, leaving it in a deeply weakened position. This presents a tremendous risk to the future of our nation."