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A staff survey shows just how broken Congress is

Senators Debate Health Care Bill On Capitol Hill Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Congress is dramatically understaffed. Its aides don’t know enough policy to craft successful legislation. Senators and House members are far too busy to understand chunks of the bills they are passing.

And this isn’t the public talking — it’s the assessment of the highest-ranking aides on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the Congressional Management Foundation released a 38-page report — called “State of the Congress” — that found overwhelming majorities of senior congressional aides believe Congress is not equipped to execute its basic functions.

The report gives a dispiriting account of both legislative chambers, the branch of government now tasked with serving as a check on President Donald Trump’s chaotic White House.

Some of its findings:

  • Staffers are underqualified: Top congressional aides don’t believe their staffers are sufficiently qualified for their jobs. Only 15 percent of congressional staffers surveyed said they were "very satisfied" with the level of “knowledge, skills, and abilities” of congressional staff.
  • It’s hard to get good information: Not only do congressional staffers lack expertise, but it’s hard for them to get fair and nonpartisan information to fill the void. Only 24 percent said they have access to "high quality, nonpartisan policy expertise,” the report found.
  • Technology is inadequate: Only 6 percent of those surveyed said that Congress’s technological infrastructure meet their offices’ needs. “Technology in Congress has not kept pace with the expectations of members, staffers, and citizens,” the CMF report says. “Many of the challenges to improving technology lie in tradition, procedure, rules, budgeting practices, cybersecurity, and politics.”
  • Members don’t get time to consider legislation: Only 6 percent of staffers said they had time to debate and consider the policy they’re making. The health care debate provided a dramatic and obvious illustration of this trend — Republican senators were only given a few hours to learn what was in the “skinny repeal” bill that failed by one vote.

The study was based on 184 responses from chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, legislative directors, communications directors, and district directors, according to CMF.

A result of decades of going after Congress

Congressional aides’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with their institution is at least partly the result of decades of policy decisions to cut funding from the legislative body, says Daniel Schuman, policy director of the good-government group Demand Progress.

In 1979, the House had 2,027 committee staff members and 7,067 personal staff members. The latest figures available, from 2012, show those numbers down to 1,289 committee staffers and 6,683 personal staff, according to a report by the Brookings Institution.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

In other words, even as the complexity of lawmaking grows, members of Congress have less help to govern. Moreover, of the staff that lawmakers do have to turn to, more and more are doing communications work or constituent support rather than policymaking, according to Schuman.

“We see many more people going into the districts — which suggests very strongly they’re moving from policy to constituent work,” he notes.

The big change in congressional staffing levels came in the early 1990s, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich successfully abolished the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, cut committee staff levels, and shrank the size of the Congressional Research Service — the main tool congressional aides have for boning up on policy.

Nothing since has really reversed the trend. Democrats under President Obama tried to reverse staffing declines, Schuman said, but had their efforts either rebuffed or reversed by Republicans. Dollar for dollar, the House of Representatives is set to spend exactly the same amount on its internal budget as it did in 2010 — not accounting for inflation or the increased cost of building maintenance.

“What’s happened as expert committee staff [are] leaving is you have lobbyists come in from whatever companies they work at do write the legislation,” Schuman says. “Weakening the administrative state has devolved power to the special interests.”

He noted that there is, however, one exception to the long-running reduction in Capitol Hill personnel: The Capitol Police force has approximately doubled in size in 20 years — its budget now tops $375 million (or the equivalent of the entire Seattle Police Department).