During the past 40 years, the demands upon Congress have grown immensely. The nation’s population has increased by one-third and federal spending has increased sevenfold. Today, the federal government has more than 4 million civilian and military employees and an annual budget in excess of $4.5 trillion. The executive branch has around 180 agencies, which administer untold thousands of statutes and programs. The government also funds, and to a degree directs, hundreds of thousands of contractors and subnational organizations.
And as a lengthy study by me and a couple of dozen scholars found, congressional capacity has declined during this same four decades. Today, Congress has fewer staffers than it did in the 1980s. It also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and its other legislative branch support agencies. And turnover among Hill staff is high: The average experience of a person working for Congress is three years.
Remarkably, the number and structure of congressional committees has evolved only a little to meet the new issues that have confronted the nation in the past 40 years — the opioid epidemic, to cite but one example. The size of the House remains at 435 members, who somehow are supposed to represent 330 million people. (That’s an average of 758,000 for every legislator.) And the rules and procedures by which Congress conducts oversight and advances legislation look much as they did when Tip O’Neill was the speaker of the House and Olivia Newton-John was crooning “Magic.”
Those who want to make Congress more effective often take a “throw the bums out” attitude. These reformers encourage giving majority control of the House or Senate (or both) to one party or another, and replacing individual legislators who are deemed roadblocks to reform.
These approaches are not without merit. Our national legislature has some clowns, cranks and crooks, who should be sent home. And if one party does not govern competently, it is reasonable to let the other party give it a whirl.
Unfortunately, the efforts to swap in purportedly better people have barely moved the needle. For the past 15 years, public disapproval of Congress’s performance has averaged at around 70 percent. Typically, when people look at Washington, as former Speaker Paul Ryan observed, “it looks like chaos”—not leadership or governance, regardless of which party is in control.
... In the 1940s, Congress restructured itself and bolstered its paltry staff levels so it could oversee the executive branch, which had grown during the Great Depression and World War II. It did the same in the 1970s—it increased its institutional capacity by hiring more staff and by establishing two new support agencies, the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Technology Assessment. Congress invested in itself for the sake of rebalancing the tripartite governance system and improving its ability to serve the public.
It has been nearly 50 years since Congress has reformed itself in a major way. Crazily, Congress actually cut its capacity in the 1990s as part of the Gingrich Revolution. Today, Congress has fewer staffers than it did in the 1980s. It also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and its other legislative branch support agencies.