Congressional job approval is notoriously abysmal. The latest polls show only 20% of voters are satisfied with our Legislative Branch.
Some level of frustration with Congress will always exist, because outcomes in a democracy are fundamentally linked with competing interests and, therefore, cannot satisfy everyone at once.
But, this polling is also indicative of the American people’s frustration with a Congress that is seemingly incapable of fulfilling its basic roles.
The Constitution saddles Congress with the enormous responsibility of writing our nation’s laws and keeping the Executive Branch in check through oversight measures. As you might imagine, the magnitude and complexity of these tasks have grown leaps and bounds alongside economic expansion and the size and reach of the Executive Branch.
The resulting challenges we face are ominous.
Most notably unsustainable national debt levels and agency mismanagement threaten our ability to deliver entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. At the same time, a growing economic divide breeds discontent among lower income Americans and is exacerbated by conditions that cap upward mobility, such as burgeoning student debt.
While these are often themes on the campaign trail, Congress has been incapable of deliberating, let alone solving, these massive problems once they take office.
Moreover, Congress has abdicated its oversight role over the Executive Branch, allowing cavalier administrations to overstep in foreign and domestic matters without restraint, which threatens the delicate balance of powers that ensure American freedoms.
These problems and others must be addressed by a Congress that is not currently equipped to do so.
Part of this problem is that Congress does not have the capacity to deal with the plethora of issues they face in their dual roles of writing the nation’s laws and overseeing the executive branch.
These duties are performed by staff at the direction of elected members. And multiple studies have found that they can’t keep up.
It’s time to increase congressional staff salaries.
Those of us who expect politicians to operate on slim budgets also argue that government should function more like the private sector. We are then confounded when it doesn’t.
Congressional office budgets often serve as low hanging fruit for politicians to demonstrate their (professed) zeal for low spending. So members regularly insist on keeping legislative branch appropriations flat and have frozen staff salaries since 2009 without adjustments for inflation.
Congressional staffs have grown in number but face high turnover and a shortage in the senior ranks. The result is a dearth of institutional knowledge, deep policy understanding, and discerning leaders of the caliber needed to negotiate complex and sensitive issues. A recent study found that there is a direct causal link between the tenure of the lawmaker’s most experienced staffer and their legislative effectiveness. Yet, the reduction in resources and freezing of salaries have made it difficult for lawmakers to retain these key staffers.
At best, the situation is a drain on productivity; at worst, it puts congressional responsibilities at risk.
The R Street Institute’s Casey Burgat examined that connection between foreign policy agencies and the ability of congressional committees to properly oversee their activities. He found that the ratio of resources dedicated to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security versus the four congressional committee charged with overseeing them has increased from 1,000 to 1 to 4,300 to 1. In other words, congressional resources have remained stagnant while the agencies size have quadrupled in comparison. Burgat concludes that this leads to “a reduced capacity for fruitful oversight.”
Burgat also examined seniority among foreign policy committee staff and found the longest average tenure is less than seven years. Contextualizing this time frame, he notes that “the average committee staffer responsible for issues relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the military operations in Libya, Syria and beyond, was not on the committee more than five years ago and, thus, is over a decade removed from working on the committee when the most recent AUMF was approved by Congress.”
Another study found a negative correlation between committee budget size and the amount of policy discretion their bills provide to the executive branch agencies.
Add it all up, and it’s clear that proponents of strong oversight and a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches should be open to beefing up congressional capacity. With multitudes of critical policy and oversight issues demanding staff’s attention around the clock, taxpayers deserve high-performing staffers who can cut through the noise and deliver sound assessments for their bosses.
Applying this idea is predicated on how success is defined for congressional staffers, which can be challenging to standardize given Congress is comprised of 535 independent offices with conflicting aims. The particulars of this topic are better suited for another conversation. But the underlying objectives for a more efficient, effective and constitutionally-bound government and the aim for Congress to reassert itself as a coequal branch should be held in common by all political views.
If you’re a fiscal conservative, deficit hawk or otherwise rightly care about the national debt, you might be scoffing right now.
But let’s be clear – being fiscally responsible means being savvy about how we deploy capital within the bounds of the Constitution, such that it maximizes returns for taxpayers. An experienced, high-performing congressional staff fits the bill.
To see Clay’s other suggestions for fixing Congress, you can go to his site Without Objection.