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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Oversight and the Legislative Lobotomy

Many posts have discussed declines in congressional capacity.

William Yeatman at Cato:
After World War Two, committees were the most consequential institutions in Congress; now, parties fill that role. Part of the reason for this change is demographic: The parties became more homogenous with the demise of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans. At the same time that party rank-and-file were taking on hive-minds, opportunistic party leaders gamed the House and Senate rules to centralize power in their hands.
For ascendant party leadership in Congress, strong committees were a roadblock to the consolidation of authority. To weaken committees, party leaders sought to weaken committee staff.
Matters came to a head in 1995 on the first day of the 104th Congress, when Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican leadership slashed committee staff by one-third, and the Senate soon followed suit. Because it was in the interest of both parties’ leaders to subdue committees, staffing never recovered
For example, there were 2,115 professional personnel in House and Senate standing committees in 2015, or less than two-thirds the total in 1991 (3,528). To be fair, party leaders invested in some parts of Congress--themselves. From 1995 to 2011, House and Senate leadership staff increased 35 percent and 38 percent (respectively).
Simply put, Congress doesn’t have the tools to oversee the administrative state it created. The WSJ grows a false narrative when its Editorial Board opines that Warren’s plan for congressional staff reflects an “expansion of government.” In a less sincere tone—his real purpose was power—Rep. Gingrich advanced the same arguments when he dropped the ax on committee staff in 1995. Though untrue and often disingenuous, it makes for a great talking point to claim that Congress should lead by example by starving itself in the name of fiscal prudence. Anyone who claims otherwise is branded as a spendthrift. That’s why staffing levels have never recovered