While some government reformers are still trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of political cash, two men are suggesting that is a lost cause. The road to reform, they say, is to beef up Capitol Hill staff and the nonpartisan institutions that feed Congress information.
In a lengthy Washington Monthly article, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, and Steven Teles, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, lay out an idea unlikely to spark bumper stickers in support. Adding staff and bolstering the General Accounting Office aren't ideas that readily shout "reform."
Drutman and Teles say a Congress awash in political contributions, largely from corporate interests, has become dependent on the information channels of donors. Republican leadership in Congress has shrunk its own staff resources in the name of smaller, leaner government and now must rely more heavily on the information resources of the people and organizations that got them elected.
The pay gap between what Congress pays staffers and special interests pay lobbyists, they add, encourages talented people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, leaving Members of Congress with relatively young, inexperienced staffs who may or may not be able to smell something fishy in information fed to their bosses.
Their idea is double the number of congressional committee staffers and triple the amount available for salaries. The highest-paid positions would go to the most qualified individuals, regardless of who their boss was or which party was in control.
"Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats," wrote Drutman and Teles. "This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community."
"A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee," they explained. "This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trustworthy and knowledgeable."
As insiders know, there is a version of this rotation system in place between the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service. Staff members have toggled back and forth for years. Unfortunately, the current federal tax code may not stand as a great example of the result.
Drutman and Teles admit that some congressmen and senators may continue to take their information and orders from the "extreme ideological wing" or rich campaign donors. But they say the presence of a well-paid, balanced congressional staff can help federal lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff. They speculate, perhaps too hopefully, that the presence of skilled congressional staff may prompt talented people to seek political office in hopes they can legislate, not just dial for dollars.
Criticism of the current congressional set-up eclipses partisanship. In 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner said Congress "does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent." House Speaker Boehner has not found the remedy for the problem he identified five years ago.
Drutman and Teles say GOP moves to cut staff and geld nonpartisan congressional advisory bodies may be out of touch with some of their own most conservative instincts. They say Congress has crippled its own ability to stand toe-to-toe on issues with the executive branch and legislate with discernment on issues such as taxation, health care and immigration.
In 2013, Congress spent about $2 billion on its own operation. Drutman and Teles said that is roughly equal to a Pentagon cost overrun.
"Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies."