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If Congress is truly going to check executive power, it needs to allocate more money for staff

Challenging the executive branch is hark work. Congress needs to staff up to do it well.

(From left) Sen. James Langford (R-OK), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), listen to testimony during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
(From left) Sen. James Langford (R-OK), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), listen to testimony during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As US senators move to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, I've been mulling the US Senate's historic list of "Notable Senate Investigations."

Look at this list and you can absorb the potentially awesome power of congressional oversight. The 1940s Truman committee hearings that called out war profiteering and probably saved taxpayers billions of dollars; the 1950-'51 Kefauver committee hearings that confronted organized crime in America and brought it to life with televised live proceedings in 1951 that an estimated 30 million Americans watched; the 1973-'74 Watergate hearings that set the stage for Nixon's impeachment; the 1975 Church committee (named for Sen. Frank Church) that exposed wide-ranging domestic spying abuses by the CIA and FBI.

But follow the timeline forward to the present, and since 1975 only one more investigation shows up on the list: the 1987-'89 Iran-Contra hearings. That leaves an almost three-decade gap in notable investigations, the longest in the timeline.

It's possible that, like many things with the Senate, this is just a list that hasn't been updated in a while. But the intervening years don't offer obvious omissions. Yes, the 9/11 commission and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission are not included on the list. But that's presumably because they were both effectively outsourced.

So what accounts for the Senate's almost 30-year drought of "notable investigations"? The most obvious explanation is that doing major investigations is hard work. It requires considerable staff capacity. But even more than just numbers, it requires experienced staff who have put in the time it takes to really understand how Washington works. It also requires staff who are planning to stick around long enough to see these kinds of investigations to fruition. These kinds of staff members are in shorter and shorter supply on Capitol Hill these days.

Consider some numbers. In 1975, when the Church committee was in operation, the Senate employed 1,277 committee staff, according to the Brookings Institution's Vital Statistics on Congress. In 2015, the Senate had just 888 committee staff, a 30 percent decline. Over these four decades, the demands on Congress have increased, the complexity of the world has increased, and the executive branch has expanded considerably. Yet the Senate has been shedding committee staff during this period. The House has also had a similar decline, from 1,460 committee staff in 1975 to 1,100 in 2015 (down 25 percent).

Look at the resources that went into one of the "notable" investigations on the Senate's list, the 1957-1960 Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, which Sen. John McClellan ran out of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Over three years, the committee held 270 days of hearings, interviewed more than 1,500 witnesses, and served more than 8,000 subpoenas. More than 100 staffers worked on the committee at the time. The work eventually led to a major labor law reform.

The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) still exists. But it now has about 15 permanent staff, which limits what it can do.

I asked Elise Bean, who was the staff director for the committee from 2003 to 2014, what the limited staffing capacity meant for her ability to tackle major investigations. She told me: "Our limited staff conducted terrific investigations, but I often thought of the waste, fraud, and abuse we could have stopped if the Senate had invested more in PSI. Just one of our offshore tax investigations led to a $1 billion recovery; a larger PSI budget would have produced an even greater investigative return."

Under Sen. Carl Levin's leadership, the PSI put together some blockbuster investigations on offshore tax avoidance. But these were hard work.

Will Congress invest in its own capacity to do serious oversight in the Trump administration?

Certainly, there are a few encouraging signs, as Daniel Stid notes an important new Washington Monthly essay. One can turn, for example, to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who recently had this to say at a Federalist Society event: "When people stand up against power and they disagreed with that power, no one's surprised. They all expected that. What's glorious is when people believe in limited government and restraint, when we are the ones in power. And we now have the opportunity to model that restraint."

Over in the House, meanwhile, Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the former prosecutor who led the Benghazi hearings, is making similar noises. At a recent fundraiser, he said, "The legislative branch was designed to be and at one point was the most powerful of the three branches. It is without question the weakest of the three branches now. Part of that is because we've allowed that to happen."

Gowdy was at the fundraiser with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), another firebrand, who took a similar line: "This is a moment where we could claw back some of that constitutional authority for our legislature."

But talk is one thing. Building up Congress as a bulwark against excessive executive power requires a major investment in congressional capacity. And of late, the signs haven't been encouraging. Consider what's happened to salaries between 2009 and 2013, based on CRS reports. Congress is paying less and less, in constant dollars.

In the House:

  • Median pay for House "counsel" positions declined from $74,925 to $59,555, down 20 percent.
  • Median pay for House "legislative director" positions declined from $93,013 to $81,177, down 13 percent.
  • Median pay for House "legislative assistant" positions declined from $55,643 to $48,622, down 13 percent.

In the Senate:

  • Median pay for Senate "counsel" positions declined from $98,063 to $84,424, down 14 percent.
  • Median pay for Senate "legislative director" positions declined from $148,288 to $131,912, down 11 percent.
  • Median pay for Senate "legislative assistant" positions declined from $72,859 to $66,606 down 9 percent.

Understandably, to folks back home in many states and districts, these can seem like big numbers. But they need keep in mind that Washington, DC, is an expensive place to live — by one analysis, more expensive than San Francisco or New York City. Even the $131,912 median for a Senate legislative director is not exceptional money, especially when first-year law firm associates in town are earning $160,000. Lobbyists with legislative director experience, it goes without saying, earn considerably more.

Low salaries mean high turnover. During the past 10 years (2006 to 2016), the median Senate chief of staff served in that position for just 2.5 years and the median chief of staff in the House for just 2.8 years. This lack of experience and institutional knowledge makes it harder for Congress to effectively check the executive branch, since members rely so much on their staffers these days.

Congress spends about $2 billion on itself a year. Again, a big number — until you put it in the context of a $4 trillion annual government budget. And $2 billion is less than the $3.2 billion spent on lobbying annually — a number that will almost certainly increase as we enter into an era of greater political uncertainty.

Last year, the House voted for a small increase in member office funding. The Senate voted to keep salaries flat. This has to change. A well-resourced Congress may be the one thing standing in the way of a Trump administration doing whatever the heck it wants. A doubling or even a tripling of congressional staff budgets — especially if it goes to oversight — would be money very, very well spent.