In Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock, we make the case for improving the deliberative abilities of the legislative branch. Those abilities have taken a hit in recent years.
"State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and Senate" reveals that senior congressional staff have deep concerns about important aspects of congressional operations and performance.
Using survey data collected from senior staffers as a framework, author Kathy Goldschmidt coalesces disparate research and schools of thought under a single theme:
"Americans widely believe that Congress is not working because it does not want to work. Conventional wisdom holds that the blame for any democratic dysfunction lies primarily with current occupants of Capitol Hill. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) offers an alternative perspective. Congress may not be working well because it does not currently have the capacity to work well."Key Findings
- Congress needs to improve staff knowledge, skills and abilities. In response to the statement, "Staff knowledge, skills and abilities are adequate to support Members' official duties," 83% of staff surveyed noted this aspect was very important, while 15% were very satisfied (gap of 68 percentage points). Congress is one of the most important, complex, and information-rich knowledge-based workplaces in the world. Both Congress and the public should be concerned that the human resources on Capitol Hill may be inadequate to support Senators' and Representatives' official duties.
- Senators and Representatives lack the necessary time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation. In response to the statement, "Members have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate policy and legislation," 67% of staff surveyed noted this was very important, while 6% were very satisfied (gap of 61 percentage points). In the past few decades, under both parties, House and Senate leadership have implemented strategies or allowed conditions to evolve that diminish the ability of individual legislators to deeply consider and influence public policy. This is the core function of a legislature, and we must question whether democracy is working if legislators cannot adequately perform this foundational role.
- Congress needs to improve Member and staff access to high quality, nonpartisan policy expertise within the Legislative Branch. In response to the statement, "Members and staff have access to high-quality, nonpartisan, policy expertise within the legislative branch," 81% of staff surveyed noted this was very important, while 24% were very satisfied (gap of 57 percentage points). Over the past few decades, Congress has made considerable cuts to staffing in committees, the Congressional Research Service and the General Accountability Office and eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment. This has occurred while the Executive Branch and the private sector have added considerable policy heft and expertise. Senior staffers are concerned whether the Legislative Branch has the intellectual infrastructure necessary to study, deliberate and decide serious questions of public policy.
- Congress needs to improve its technological infrastructure. In response to the statement, "The technological infrastructure is adequate to support Members' official duties," 60% of staff surveyed noted this was very important, while 6% were very satisfied (gap of 54 percentage points). Technology in Congress has not kept pace with the expectations of Members, staffers and citizens. Many of the challenges to improving technology lie in tradition, procedure, rules, budgeting practices, cybersecurity, and politics. Congress is under extraordinary simultaneous pressures to create the most transparent institution in the world while being subjected to unprecedented hacking attempts and increasing demands from constituents. Resolving these competing forces will require both political will and resource investment.
- Congress should re-examine its capacity to perform its role in democracy. In response to the statement, "The chamber has adequate capacity and support (staff, research capability, infrastructure, etc.) to perform its role in democracy," 62% of staff surveyed noted this was very important, while 11% were very satisfied (gap of 51 percentage points). Senior staffers are fairly comfortable that Members and staff understand their role in democracy, but they question whether their chamber has the resources it needs to perform its role. As discussed above, respondents have deep concerns about staff skills and technology. The root of these concerns may lie in the fact that congressional budgets and staffing levels in key Legislative Branch organizations have declined over the past few decades. Congress may not have the resources it needs to be effective.
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