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Bobby Jindal's plan to make Congress part-time would be a disaster

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal may have been relegated to the "loser's debate" for low-polling GOP candidates on Wednesday night, but he still managed to propose the best plan for undermining American democracy that any presidential candidate has put forward this cycle.

Asked if Washington insiders like Sen. Lindsey Graham (standing just to his left) were capable of winning over voters, Jindal unleashed a fevered call to kick the bums out. He wants term limits. He wants salary cuts. And, most notably, he wants members of Congress to work part-time (see video above).

Lobbyist and Canvasser


If you want to maximize the power of lobbyists in Washington, DC, you could hardly design a better plan. We have a lot of experience with term limits in state legislatures, and political scientists have found that they undermine professionalism, degrade legislative expertise on the issues, and increase the power of lobbyists.

"Term limits have certainly not attenuated the ties between legislators and lobbyists," Wayne State University political scientist Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and co-authors write in their book on term limits in Michigan. "Indeed, our findings suggest that term limits are an effective means of strengthening these ties, making legislators somewhat more accessible to lobbyists and the groups they represent. And term limits increase the prominence of lobbyists and organized groups as sources for information about issues." Economists Gerard Padró Miquel and James Snyder found that legislative effectiveness in state legislatures rises with time, and never erodes, which implies that term limits produce less effective legislators.

"Whatever a higher level of professionalism produces more of, term limits has reduced," Thad Kousser concludes in Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism.

A part-time, more poorly paid legislature is an even worse idea. States' experiences with part-time legislatures have been disastrous. Because members still need to work outside of the statehouse, some have taken clients with strong interests in legislative business, or used their office to help their full-time employer. They also in general exhibit less professionalism — which makes sense, since they're not legislating as a profession. Political scientists Gary Moncrief and Peverill Squire have found that more professionalized legislatures pay more attentions to constituents and represent their views better; pass more bills; and enact more complicated overhauls and reforms. They just do more legislating.

There's a real fix


The solution.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

If we want to fix Congress, we should be doing the opposite of what Jindal's proposing. We should be paying members of Congress, and their staff, considerably more, both to attract highly qualified policymakers who can provide expertise currently supplied to underfunded congressional offices by lobbyists, and to deter those experts from leaving for lobbying firms. We should also be reviving independent agencies that can provide specialized expertise, like the Office of Technology Assessment, which Newt Gingrich abolished upon becoming speaker in 1995.

Vox contributor Lee Drutman and Steve Teles have an excellent agenda along these lines. "Congress doesn’t have to pay lobbyist-level salaries, since staff jobs, especially if reformed in the way we suggest, offer experiences and opportunities that can’t be had even on K Street," they note. But Congress does have to be paying more.

This is an uphill fight. Drutman has documented a marked decline in both the number of staffers advising Congress, and in their salaries, in recent decades. Political scientists Anthony Madonna and Ian Ostrander have conducted surveys that found voters think Congress still has too much staff. If Congress is to be fixed, members have to stop thinking about public opinion and start getting selfish.