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The growing conservative case for strengthening Congress

The U.S. Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ever since Barack Obama became president, congressional Republicans have been fulminating about executive branch over-reach. Yet, instead of gearing up to fight back by staffing up, House GOP leaders have cut their own funding by 20% since taking over the majority in 2011.

The initial cutting instincts were the knee-jerk reflexes of a conservative ideology whose first principle was smaller government. It might have made for good symbolism (look at us, we're tightening our belts!), but keep in mind the entire House staff and the entire Senate staff combined costs just about $2 billion a year, less than one-tenth of one percent of the total $3.5 trillion federal budget.

The consequence is that self-inflicted budget cuts have left House offices scrambling to retain staff, and thus less capable of responding to a president who has finally decided that he is going to stop begging for permission or asking for forgiveness.

Now, a few thinkers on the conservative side are coming around to the view that cutting congressional funding to prove a point turns out to be at best pointless, and more likely counter-productive.

The first major messenger was former AEI President and current Hudson Institute Fellow Christopher C. DeMuth, who has made a strong claim for Congressional re-assertion in an October 2014 Weekly Standard article, "A Constitutional Congress?" as well as in more recent pieces in National Review and the Liberty Law Forum (all three are right-leaning publications).

In his Weekly Standard article, DeMuth argued that Congress should reclaim some of the many powers it had delegated or just given up. But, even more broadly, he argued that: "a constitutional revival will require a cultural revival. Recovering Congress's lost powers will require relearning legislative skills, redirecting legislators' energies, and risking the ire of party constituencies who are unfamiliar with the obligations of legislating and their centrality to the separation of powers. That is a tall order, but the time may be ripe."

Now comes along another strong conservative case for congressional re-assertion from Kevin R. Kosar, a senior fellow at the free-market R Street Institute, whose new essay, "How to Strengthen Congress" is in the new issue of the right-leaning quarterly National Affairs.

Describing the events of 2015, Kosar writes that "Republicans were left spluttering over Obama's power grabs." But without adequate capacity, it is no wonder they had only spluttering to offer. Congress, in Kosar's stinging phrase, was "complicit in its diminution."

I, too, have been making the case for congressional capacity-building. My concern is less about an imperial presidency or an out-of-control bureaucracy. I'm more worried that if we have a Congress that lacks its own independent knowledge and capacity, we get a Congress that is forced to rely on whatever lobbyists show up to provide that knowledge and capacity. Congressional staffs are small and inexperienced. Demands on offices are large. To fill the gap, congressional offices inevitably turn to outside lobbyists to help them. The vast majority of those lobbyists represent large corporations.

But differences aside, we agree on the need to strengthen Congress. The obvious question becomes how. Kosar offers four basic ideas:

  • more resources for Congress generally;
  • making members of Congress take their job more seriously;
  • more resources for congressional support agencies;
  • more tools for Congress to fight back against executive branch overreach.

Let me discuss each briefly.

More resources for Congress generally

"Members should be granted the resources for more policy-focused staff positions," Kosar writes. He also urges a focus on committees, which, he says, should expand their staffs, raise salaries, and start "making staff retention the norm."

I whole-heartedly agree. We need higher salaries, and more staff. But, as I've argued, most of those staff should be concentrated on committees, which should be the real policymaking workhorses.

Members of Congress should take their job more seriously

Kosar also wants members of Congress to work harder - to not just show up on a Tuesday and leave on a Thursday, but rather put in five solid days a week in Washington, and be in session most weeks of the year.

"It is time," Kosar writes, "to lay to rest the appealing notion of the earnest, amateur legislator who can appear at the Capitol three days a week and govern with pure horse-sense." Kosar also wants members of Congress to specialize a little more, especially in the Senate, where each senator sits on far too many committees.

Norms are hard to change. The old model of congressional service was that you kept a low profile for years. You picked a few orphaned issues on which to really become an expert, and you waited for your moment. Now everybody is an expert on everything immediately and therefore nothing. Much of this is the fault of the non-stop media, which creates opportunities for attention-hungry freshmen like Ted Cruz that just didn't exit three decades ago. Even if members stayed in DC, it would be harder to get them to focus on policy. The 24/7 media is not going away.

This is why I put more faith in staff, who are forced to keep a low profile. Most of the work of congressmen is done by their staff anyway. That's fine, and probably the way it has to be, given the increasing demands and complexity of modern policymaking.

Long-term, a more substantive Congress might attract wonkier members. As DeMuth argued in his Weekly Standard article, "If persons with specific competencies such as these saw congressional careers as a route to high achievement, the pool of office seekers could be enriched and diversified, and the prospects for reestablishing Congress's constitutional position much improved." It's a nice idea, so sure, let's go with that.

More resources for support agencies

Congress also relies on support agencies: the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) for budgetary matters, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) for investigations, the CRS (Congressional Research Service) for general research support. These agencies have all seen their staffing levels decline for decades. Kosar notes that CRS is down 22% in staff since 1979. GAO is down about 40% since the mid-1970s. He wants to boost these. I do as well.

But as Kosar, who quit the CRS after 11 years last year, noted in a Washington Monthly article explaining his decision to leave, the support agencies can only be as good as the staffers who use them. If congressional staffers overwhelm support agencies with dumb and pointless questions, and don't bother to read their reports because they don't have time, the support agencies can't help Congress make thoughtful policy.

Fighting back against the executive branch

Since Kosar is also concerned about executive branch over-reach and waste, he wants a few extras. He'd like Congress to take a more active role in approving agency inspectors general (which he worries tend to be too friendly to the agencies) and he'd like Congress to take a more active role in approving and reviewing regulations. He also wants Congress to "cut the number of existing federal programs." And to create Congressionally-established commission to identify "archaic and wasteful regulations."

There are probably two reasons Congress delegates so much policymaking to the agencies. The first is that members of Congress understand that they don't have adequate expertise in a large number of policy areas. To get policy right takes time and thought, and agencies are better equipped to be specialists in actually implementing policy.

The second reason is that it's easier politically to delegate to agencies. It's a form of passing along responsibility. It's easy for members of Congress to criticize the runaway bureaucracy when it does something wrong, and easy to claim credit when it does something right.

It's reasonable to argue that Congress has over-delegated. But it would take an awful lot of Congressional capacity to adequately oversee the vast federal rulemaking machinery.

Moreover, there is some wisdom in delegation, especially given the level of complexity that exists in most policy areas. And there is some wisdom in a reasonable level of bureaucratic autonomy.

Presumably, a smarter Congress would understand its strengths and weaknesses, and members would work with the agencies, rather than against them, to achieve shared policy goals. Congress might even want to give agencies a little more flexibility in implementing rules, thinking more about metrics for effectiveness, rather than specific rigid rules.

The politics of congressional reform

Ultimately, congressional leaders hold the power over their own fate. They set spending levels. They can decide to spend more money or less money on Congress.

For decades, congressional leaders have decided against giving themselves adequate resources. Whatever thinking led to this place, it has to change. But I fear that it will be hard to change as long as Congress remains a synonym for incompetence and dysfunction, making the politics of congressional re-assertion fraught at best.

I disagree that executive over-reach is the biggest problem our democracy is facing. But Republicans are almost certainly going to control the House for a while, and possibly the Senate. Democrats seem more likely to hold the White House. Congress as countervailing force to executive over-reach, thus, may be necessary political justification.

It's also important to note that the periodic moments of congressional re-assertion through re-organization and staffing up (in 1946, and again in the early 1970s) came when Congress collectively felt it was getting rolled by the executive branch. So, again, the politics of inter-branch rivalry can be a good spur to action.

At the same time, if it's only about inter-branch balance of power, it runs the risk of becoming one of many government structure and procedure issues in which the parties permanently trade positions back and forth, depending on who is in power. If improved congressional capacity becomes partisan issue, this makes it harder to accomplish anything.

A broader case for competent, expert government appeals to wonks like me, but for now it is a harder sell publicly. Still, it's a case that needs to be made. The argument ought to be simple. Somebody is going to write the laws. Do you want it to be experienced, qualified people that you elect and can vote out? Or do you want it to be corporate lobbyists, who you never would elect, and who you can't vote out?

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