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Senators vote to keep themselves dependent on lobbyists

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The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this week to keep senators and their staff dependent on the expertise and information that lobbyists provide.

Okay, let me be fair. The committee didn't do this explicitly. But by ignoring the need for a long-overdue increase in staff salaries and instead "holding the line" on the legislative branch spending bill, the senators effectively voted to further empower private lobbyists.

Keeping staff budgets at their low levels pretty much ensures that staff turnover will remain high, and that the staffers who inform and advise the senators on policy will remain younger and more inexperienced than private lobbyists, and will be stretched far too thin to do much of their own research.

This means that the staffers will remain heavily dependent on lobbyists to explain policy to them, to give them ideas for legislation, to write bills for them and get co-sponsors for those bills, and to draft talking points for senators' letters, op-eds, and speeches.

Some slight progress in the House, but not nearly enough

Over in the House, however, there were some glimmers of hope. This week, the House Appropriations Committee did approve a 1.5 percent increase in the budget for House offices, or about $18,821 per office. It's not much. But at least it's something.

Still, there's a long way to go.

The entire House and Senate combined now spend less on staff ($2 billion a year) than corporations spend on reported lobbying ($2.6 billion a year). But since that reported lobbying number is at best half of the actual money spent on lobbying, let's say that corporations actually spend at least two times more on lobbying than Congress spends on staff.

And things have been getting worse. Consider what has happened to salaries between 2009 and 2013, based on Congressional Research Service 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.

This is nothing new. Overall, congressional staffing levels are about the same as they were 20 years ago — slightly down in the House, slightly up in the Senate, according to CRS reports. More specifically:

  • In the House, total staffing levels fell from 9,891 to 9,175 between 1994 and 2014, down 7 percent.
  • In the Senate they went from 5,476 to 5,758 between 1994 and 2014, up 5 percent.

The rough stability in overall staffing, however, masks a few notable changes between 1994 and 2014:

  • Committee staffers in the House are way down — from 1,947 to 1,262, a 35 percent decline.
  • Senate staffers have migrated from DC to the states to do more constituent work. Between 1994 and 2014, the percentage of in-state Senate staff went from 35 percent to 43 percent.
  • There is, however, one notable growth area in staffing. In the House, the number of staffers in the leadership office has increased from 112 to 214 — an 89 percent increase.

But even standing still is really falling behind. Over the past 20 years, the amount of lobbying activity in Washington has at least doubled. Constituent demands have exploded. Public policy and the world have become more complex. And the executive branch has grown tremendously.

Congress just can't keep up.

How to lobby-proof Congress

So instead of relying on (too few) mid-20-somethings who are expected to somehow be experts on a dozen complicated issues as of yesterday, congressional offices should start hiring enough real policy professionals who won't need to rely so much on lobbyists to explain policy basics for them.

That will require spending more money. But it also means understanding that there is a direct relationship between how much Congress spends on professional staff and how much it relies on lobbyists for policy information. So every time a member of Congress brags about cutting spending for staff, it's important to understand what that really means: