Restoring congressional independence: increasing legislative and research staff to reduce capture by lobbyists

While doing some reading last night, I came across a great idea for political reform that hasn’t gotten much attention. I decided to do a short post. This may be the first of a series on institutional failure and reform.

Over the past 30 years, the number of congressional and research staff dramatically decreased. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Congressional Research Service (CRS) both have 20 percent fewer staff today than in 1979. At the same time, the number of committee hearings declined as well, and subcommittees had less autonomy to choose their own topics as leadership dictated what kind of legislation they wanted to pass. This trend accelerated in 1995, when anti-government Newt Gingrich and friends laid off a lot of this staff. This included institutions like the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office (which is so successful at reducing waste that it saves $90-100 for each dollar invested!). It accelerated again in 2011, when the Tea Party wave reduced support even further.

Now, we have overworked and underpaid staffers (given the high cost of living in DC) who are increasingly dependent on external sources for knowledge. This reduction in institutional support coincided with enormous increases in societal, technological, and political complexity. “The U.S. code of federal regulations grew from 71,224 pages in 1975 to 102,295 pages in 1980 to 174,545 pages by 2012,” in part even because they are explicitly written to hide their impacts.

Filling this void are think tanks and lobbyists, happy to provide subject matter expertise, with the added bonus of their bias towards the interests they serve and their tendency to make misleading or even false claims. In fact, the Heritage Foundation played a central role in the government shutdown in 2013 because they were so influential within the GOP and wrongly believed that Democrats would capitulate.

This statistic is telling:

In 2010, the House spent $1.37 billion and employed between 7,000 and 8,000 staffers. That same year, corporations and special interests spent twice as much—$2.6 billion—on lobbying (which excludes billions spent on other forms of influence) and employed 12,000 federally registered lobbyists, according to Sunlight Foundation.

The result is capture by lobbyists, which are overwhelmingly business interests: 80 percent of all spending is made by corporate interests, while 90-95 percent of lobbyist organizations represent businesses. In conjunction with the infinite need of money and the need for congressmen to fundraise endlessly, they have immense influence over the legislative process, while congressmen don’t know enough to ask the right questions because they aren’t at their committee meetings.

To close to the circle, a lot of these overworked and underpaid staffers eventually seek to enter the revolving door towards lobbying, where they make multiples off their current public salaries (Lawrence Lessig estimates a minimum of six times their current salaries). Turnover is also extremely high: of the staffers that started in 2005, 82 percent of Senate staffs and 70 percent of House staffers left by 2012.

The solution is relatively simple: “double the committee staff, and triple the money available for salaries.” The increase would be split into specialized committee staff under committee chairs and an additional committee staffer on a congressman’s detail. This allows for long-term staff unaffected by electoral change who would have the historical knowledge and expertise to advise congressmen on policy issues.

Another interesting idea, brought up by Craig Montuori in a Quora answer, is a hyperlinked and connected database for the Code of Federal Regulations and the United States Code, which includes showing how it changes over time. It could be combined with CBO projections per section.

Right now, 0.2 percent of all spending funds Congress and the Senate, or $6 of the $3000 we spend per American. If we simply tripled that amount, we would be able to provide far better oversight, anticipate implementation issues, and provide a powerful check towards special interests.

Further reading:

Succinct but insightful Quora answer.

The Big Lobotomy: How Republicans Made Congress Stupid – Washington Monthly, Summer 2014

A New Agenda for Political Reform – Washington Monthly, Spring 2015

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One thought on “Restoring congressional independence: increasing legislative and research staff to reduce capture by lobbyists

  1. I think you’re dead on. We see this problem magnified ten-fold in Texas, where our legislators only work about six months every other year, have minimal staff, and the legislature has almost no institutional support. Texans may like to think that their system is somehow superior to the national legislature, but lobbyists have even more influence here than they do at the national level. One of the greatest “gifts” lobbyists give legislators is information (and pre-packaged legislation). Again, I think you are 100% correct. If we want Congress to be free from the influence of lobbyists, we have to give them the tools to be independent.

    Liked by 1 person

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