Gingrich’s actions didn’t stop with Congress’s mind: He went for its arms and legs, too, as he dismantled the committee system, taking power from chairmen and shifting it to leadership. His successors as speaker have entrenched this practice. While there was a 35 percent decline in committee staffing from 1994 to 2014, funding over that period for leadership staff rose 89 percent.
This imbalance has defanged many of our committees, as bills originating in leadership offices and K Street suites are forced through without analysis or alteration. Very often, lawmakers never even see important legislation until right before we vote on it. During the debate over the Republicans’ 2017 tax package, hours before the floor vote, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) tweeted a lobbying firm’s summary of GOP amendments to the bill before she and her colleagues had had a chance to read the legislation. A similar process played out during the Republicans’ other signature effort of the last Congress, the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Their bill would have remade one-sixth of the U.S. economy, but it was not subject to hearings and was introduced just a few hours before being voted on in the dead of night. This is what happens when legislation is no longer grown organically through hearings and debate.
Congress does not have the resources to counter the growth of corporate lobbying. Between 1980 and 2006, the number of organizations in Washington with lobbying arms more than doubled, and lobbying expenditures between 1983 and 2013 ballooned from $200 million to $3.2 billion. A stunning 2015 study found that corporations now devote more resources to lobby Congress than Congress spends to fund itself. During the 2017 fight over the tax legislation, the watchdog group Public Citizen found that there were more than 6,200 registered tax lobbyists, vs. 130 aides on the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation, a staggering ratio approaching 50-to-1 disfavoring the American people. In 2016 in the House, there were just 1,300 aides on all committees combined, a number that includes clerical and communications workers. Our expert policy staffs are dwarfed by the lobbying class.
The practical impact of this disparity is impossible to overstate as lobbyists flood our offices with information on issues and legislation — information on which many lawmakers have become reliant. Just a few weeks ago, at the end of the session, I witnessed the biennial tradition of departing members of Congress relinquishing their suites to the incoming class. As lawmakers emptied their desks and cabinets, the office hallways were clogged with dumpsters overflowing with reports, white papers, massaged data and other materials, a perfect illustration of the proliferating junk dropped off by lobbyists.