A part-time, mostly amateur legislature cannot compete with a colossal, full-time executive branch. Congress has floundered in its duty to comprehend, to say nothing of manage, a federal government with a budget of $3.9 trillion and an extremely large body of law (the U.S. Code volume of laws relating to agriculture alone runs 2,000 pages). It is time to lay to rest the appealing notion of the earnest, amateur legislator who can appear at the Capitol three days a week and govern with pure horse-sense. The leviathan is too huge, complex, and relentless for that.
Congress can help decrease this knowledge gap by investing in its own capacity. It should first increase the length of the congressional calendar. Congress cannot simply convene on a Tuesday through Thursday schedule and expect to be in Washington only one-third of the year. That schedule does not leave sufficient time to learn what government is doing and why, let alone to determine what to do about it. Legislators should accept a mandate from congressional leadership to work five days a week for three weeks out of every five, regardless of accusations of having contracted "Potomac fever" or the threat of a primary challenge.
Spending more days in briefings and hearings likely will not do enough to shrink the knowledge gap. Legislators need more help to bridle the executive branch. Though federal spending today is ten times larger than it was in 1975, the House and Senate employ fewer staff members than they did then. Of the 16,000 congressional employees, half work outside Washington and devote themselves mostly to local and constituent issues. A significant percentage of the 8,000 Capitol Hill staffers have less than three years of experience, due to the low pay and grueling hours, and many members' personal staffs — often to their despair — are devoted to constituent-service and communications duties, not policy work. Even those who are inclined to stick it out find that there are few policy positions to which they can ascend. The solution here is simple: Members should be granted the resources for more policy-focused staff positions.
Also at The National Interest, Tevi Troy suggests ways to improve congressional hearings:
The first is to show up. Members may not like it, but using one's majority status to maintain the edge in hearings is an important component of being in the majority. Leadership cannot require that members attend their hearings, but they can strongly encourage it, with all of the inducements that the leadership can offer.
Republicans could also benefit from being more strategic in their use of hearings. True, most oversight work takes place in reaction to malfeasance or incompetence by executive-branch officials, but there are many other kinds of hearings. Republicans can and should use series of hearings to build cases over a prolonged period. Hearings can highlight solid Republican issues, such as the economic costs of our overly complex tax code or the dangers of our long-term debt. In addition, useful hearings do not have to be partisan in nature. A bipartisan review of the state of our military's preparedness, for example, could bring both Democrats and Republicans together on an issue of grave importance to the nation. Such a conversation could show that Republicans are using hearings to be serious about governing and not merely to score political points.
As for the media, little can be done to change the fact that reporters lean left. But that fact does not mean that Republicans can't use the media more effectively than they do. Social media has given politicians many more avenues for reaching voters directly. The rise of conservative media outlets enables politicians to get their messages out to more receptive reporters. And even with the traditional media, there are ways for Republicans to improve their coverage. One is outreach. Members who work harder on building relationships with the press get better coverage than those who do not. In addition, Republicans, not without reason, often treat the press as the enemy. But one can be wary of the press without treating individual journalists as villains.
Hearings are a powerful weapon for Congressional majorities. They give the party in power enormous communications opportunities and can help a party shape a compelling governing agenda. The party without the gavel, in contrast, will nearly always be on defense in hearings run by the other side. At the same time, hearings are also a difficult challenge in today's media environment. Congressional leaders cannot allow chairmen have free rein but instead must demand a strategic purpose — as well as competent hearing management — in the hearings that do take place.