What if Congress is working exactly as it's supposed to?
Well, maybe it is. At least for some people.
So who are these select few? They are indeed a small group, but not an inconsequential one. They include party leaders who benefit from centralized control of policy and personnel resources, lobbying groups with policy capacity to lend, and anybody who doesn't want Congress to be able to produce new legislation or know much about it if it does. That's about it.
Congress has given itself a lobotomy over the past three decades. It has eliminated thousands of staff positions, eviscerated its ability to carry out policy analysis, and generally has such low pay and difficult work environments that it relies on inexperienced and overstretched 20-somethings for the vast bulk of its work.
Before puzzling why any institution would do something so self-destructive and attributing the cause to irrationality or worse, we should consider perhaps that the system is now working just as many people would prefer.
Congress would significantly improve its problem-solving capacity under a reempowered committee system, with more and more professional staff to conduct policy analysis. Under such a system, committees have both the resources and the breathing space to tackle public problems. Congress would get more discovery on a range of problems, more information about potential policy solutions, and more capacity to solve problems.
By contrast, centralization of resources in party leadership means that information sources are tightly controlled, limited, and drawn into the zero-sum nature of partisan conflict. It's no wonder Congress is frequently incapacitated.
But change is hard.
To understand the obstacles, let's take a moment to examine the current arrangement of Congress from the perspective of its beneficiaries.
First, consider the perspective of party leaders. While committee staffing levels have declined in both the House and the Senate over the past three decades, leadership staff have increased by about fourfold in both the House and the Senate, from about 50 to about 200. More and more legislation is bypassing committees in both chambers. When party leaders hoard staff and policy resources, they get to drive the process. This gives them tremendous power. And who relinquishes such power voluntarily?
Not only do current staffing arrangements benefit leaders' power internally, but they also get the benefit of showing taxpayers how Congress is not wasting their money on useless things like policy expertise. After all, why pay for staff when there are plenty of trust fund kids who will do the work for free or cheap because working in Congress is a great thrill, allows relatively inexperienced (but well-connected) individuals to rise quickly to positions of great influence, and can pay off with a lucrative job in the private (lobbying) sector after just a few years? They will get their payback from the private sector, a system perfectly designed to save the taxpayers from having to pay high wages.
Low pay and high turnover help ambitious young college graduates willing to jump into the congressional whirlwind knowing that five years of experience there will move them to a senior policy position, a huge Rolodex, and a lobbying or consulting job on exit that will richly reward them for their years of hard work and low pay on the congressional payroll. We should recognize that low pay and high turnover are part of the institutional design of the revolving door and the influence industry in Washington. They are not just mistakes; it is a system working just as it was intended.
Of course, it takes two players to make this work. The system works very well indeed for those consultancies and law firms that take on these revolving-door spinners. The subsequent employers gain inside knowledge about congressional procedures and lawmaking from those who know the players and procedures and sometimes wrote the laws. Underpaying congressional staff is a viable system only if we value the revolving door. Most Americans don't like it, but those who hire the former staff certainly are doing so for a good reason: It helps their bottom line.
It also works very well for the companies and associations that can afford to hire these lobbying firms as well as a few of their own top-flight revolving door lobbyists to work on staff. We know that limited staff capacity creates incredible opportunities for a select number of private lobbying interests to shape policy knowledge on Capitol Hill and draft legislation. Why would they want to give up this power? A Congress with independent policy capacity might not be so dependent on them.
Finally, consider those who gain from congressional inaction. This includes a large number of interests that benefit from the policy status quo. If Congress were to suddenly start tackling problems again, who knows what it might start to do? So, for example, much as businesses might complain that Congress is not acting on its priorities, like immigration, many of these same businesses might not be quite so happy if Congress were to take a renewed interest in their activities.
A final and significant beneficiary of congressional incapacity is the executive branch — not just the president but also the many agencies that technically have congressional oversight and enjoy considerable autonomy when that oversight is nonexistent.
All of these groups have obvious incentives to want to maintain the status quo. And one of the enduring truths of lobbying is that defenders of the status quo have a significant advantage over those who wish to change it.
Where is the constituency for a legislative branch that is effectively gathering new information, attending to new problems, and producing new legislation based on professional, nonpartisan analysis about what the country needs?
The most obvious constituency would be the many groups and interests that have tried and failed repeatedly to get Congress to care about some public problem, that have tried to bring some issue to office after office only to hear a variation on the same thing: "This is obviously an important issue, but given the limited resource of our office and of the relevant committee, we don't really see a path forward right now. It's just not a priority for leadership, and there's no time on the calendar for it."
Another obvious constituency would be the growing number of members of Congress who are frustrated by their sense that Congress is dysfunctional, and unless they are in the leadership, they have little meaningful role to play in the current system. But expanded problem-solving capacity within Congress might give them a real opportunity to produce a landmark bill with their name on it, something to really make their grandchildren proud someday.
Of course, this power includes responsibility, and plenty of members may actually be quite happy with the perks of being a member of Congress without much actual responsibility. Perhaps more than any other time in the history of the modern Congress, being a rank-and-file member today can be a very undemanding job if members want it to be. Most votes are simply partisan exercises that require little thought, and most districts are very safe. If you like being a member of Congress and don't want to do much work, now is a great time. And if this is truly how a majority of members feel, not much will change.
A final constituency might be congressional staffers themselves, who may also like to do something more meaningful than just help write press releases and manage social media feeds, or draft legislation only to see it assigned to a committee that will never take it up. Many might prefer good career opportunities and an adequate salary to cashing in on their expertise and spinning through the revolving door, like it or not.
What would it take for these forces to effect change? It would take each of these groups understanding why they would benefit. They would need to understand how a change in the system would help them advance their individual goals, and so be willing to support these large-scale changes.
Even so, it might also take party leaders understanding that there are increasingly limits to what even they can achieve under the current system. As dissension builds within the ranks of both parties, all the centralized policy resources in the world may become worthless, as John Boehner learned. At the end of the day, Boehner couldn't maintain party unity around keeping Congress funded, and so he was forced to resign.
And Paul Ryan may soon suffer the same dilemma as he tries to pass a budget. And at some point he, or whoever follows him as speaker, may realize that being a strong speaker has become such an impossible job that it is no longer worth having, and decentralization will likely follow. A leader without followers, as Boehner once put it, is simply a man taking a walk.
But that moment is not yet here. And even if it becomes clear that centralized leadership is impossible, the beneficiaries of a more decentralized, distributed information-gathering and problem-solving process need to understand what they have to gain. Reforms require constituencies. It's time to build one. The status quo already has its constituency. It's time to replace a stupid government with a smart one.