“Do your job!”
That was the chant from angry protesters at a recent town hall event that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) held. Chaffetz is the chair of the House Oversight Committee. Those in the crowd expect that doing his job would mean using his position to lead a genuine oversight effort into President Donald Trump’s vast conflicts of interests, or Trump’s alleged coordination with Russian efforts to interfere in the election. After all, Chaffetz took a leading role in investigating Benghazi. Doesn’t what Trump has done so far at least rise to the level of Benghazi?
So far, protesters have been disappointed. Chaffetz will not be opening up any investigations, at least immediately.
But nobody should be surprised. Chaffetz is a Republican. Trump is a Republican. Like many House Republicans, Chaffetz presumably wants the GOP to remain in the majority. And he presumes that an investigation into Trump or his administration could turn up many things that might hurt Trump’s popularity (just as Benghazi hurt Hillary Clinton). And an unpopular Trump will drag down Republicans in the midterm election.
Like many House Republicans, Chaffetz also has policy goals — bills he’d like to see passed. Why would he and his colleagues poison the well with Trump now, when they hope he will eventually sign their legislation?
Finally, and relatedly, Trump is still very popular with Republicans. If Chaffetz goes after Trump, and Trump fights back, Chaffetz could easily find himself under attack from many of his own voters, and maybe facing a primary challenge.
But at some point, these incentives could change. Trump’s approval rate has steadily fallen since his inauguration. If his standing continues to decline, Republicans in Congress will need to find ways to distance themselves from him, especially members in marginal districts. Pressure will mount within the party to try to show that congressional Republicans are independent from Trump.
Eventually, it may also become clear that the Trump administration has its own ideas about policy, at odds with those of congressional Republicans. And if it becomes clear that the administration is not going to be a productive legislative partner, there is less incentive to cooperate.
The point is simple: At some point, the politics may shift. And Chaffetz, and other Republicans, may have good reason to challenge Trump.
An underresourced Congress means a stronger executive
Let’s back up a second and think about how we got to a moment in which the president is so powerful in the first place. After all, in the Constitution, Congress is the first branch of government, with many more enumerated powers.
Yet over the years, and particularly over the past few decades, Congress has ceded more and power to the executive. Admittedly, it has done some of this willingly. After all, better to delegate away hard decisions to the bureaucracy, which you can always then blame if something goes wrong, But willingly or unwillingly, the effect is the same. More and more policy has been made in the executive branch. And more and more power (especially in national security) has gone unchallenged.
At the most basic level, it’s a numbers game. The executive branch has tens of thousands of people making policy, across multiple agencies. Congress has fewer and fewer. Below, take a look at staffing levels of members’ offices in Washington. Over the past several decades, members of Congress have employed fewer and fewer people in Washington, where policy is made. Some of this decline is a result of shifting staff to district offices; some of it is a result of flat or declining budgets. But the result is the same. Members have fewer policy staff to help them.
Another way to see the decline of policy capacity is to look at money allocated per Senate office on legislative assistance over the past two and half decades. In 1993, Senate offices got $620,763 to spend on legislative assistance (in 2016 dollars). By 2016, that was down to $477,874. In a town where first-year law firm associates earn $160,000 a year (not including benefits), that’s not very much money. That means it’s not just fewer staff senators can hire — it’s also less experienced staff. High turnover has been a problem for years.
Turning to the House, we can look at the member representative allowance (MRA) over time — that’s the money that members get to spend on their offices. It did rise (in real dollars) up through 2010. But since then, spending plummeted, and it has not recovered. Staff salaries have fallen accordingly.
All these numbers point in the same direction: Congress is not investing in itself. And the less Congress invests in itself, the more power flows elsewhere — to the executive branch, which has more and more experienced personnel; to downtown lobby shops that steal away all the most experienced congressional staff to help corporations write legislation.
When Congress depends on a rotating cast of 26-year-olds to help it go toe to toe with the executive branch and private lobbyists, it is going to get rolled most of the time. Simple as that.
Maybe Chaffetz will challenge Trump. Maybe he won’t. There are also other members of Congress who could take a leadership role. And whoever they are, they need to have the ability to hire and retain enough top staffers to do their job. The fate of the nation may depend on it.
In an earlier era, when congressional staff were generally more experienced, members surrounded themselves with more people who had developed the kind of long view that comes with being a repeat player. They had longstanding relationships of trust — across parties, across branches of government — that made Congress more effective. They were more likely to view the House or the Senate as an institution, not a résumé line. Now turnover is much higher. Staff are younger, less likely to be repeat players who have the experience and relationships to make Congress truly effective. They are less likely to think like institutionalists.
Political will and political resources are not separate. One reason many members of Congress often take a reactive position is that they don’t have any other option. Lacking genuine policy resources, most members can only go along with what party leaders tell them, or what lobbyists tell them, or what the executive branch tells them. Given a limited budget, most think it’s better to invest in a press shop that will make the member look good, and better to get the talking points from the party leaders to score some easy points. That’s cheap and easy. Big legislation or serious oversight is hard.
Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to allocate its own resources. Every year, Congress passes its own legislative appropriations bill. And for a while now, it’s been shortchanging itself. It’s time for this to stop. Congress needs to allocate more for itself.
Without the ability to hire and retain the most experienced policy people, Congress cannot go toe to toe with the president on enough issues. Without the ability to hire and retain experienced policy people, members’ own conceptions of what they can and should accomplish is inevitably limited. And especially now, in a moment in which congressional offices are receiving an onslaught of public calls, “[i]t may require significant expansion of Congress’s thin, inexperienced, and overstretched staff to fully absorb the views of their constituents,” as my colleague Mark Schmitt noted in a recent piece.
The FY 2016 legislative branch budget allocated $870 million for the Senate and $1.18 billion for the House, for a total of $2.05 billion for both branches. If that seems like a lot of money, simply compare it with the rest of the federal budget: $3.54 trillion. It is tiny by comparison.
More broadly, the balance of power in our system of government matters in more profound ways. As I argue in my new policy paper, “Can Our Political Institutions Handle our Political Divisions?” a powerful president is toxic for a divided society like ours. Far better for power to rest in a legislature.
Whether or not Chaffetz would use additional resources to do his job the way many protesters would like him to distracts us from a broader view. What matters is creating the conditions wherein members of Congress are the most likely to have the will and the capacity to assert themselves effectively, to do the job that we collectively think of members of Congress doing. It might happen, or it might not happen. But the only way to ensure it will never happen is to preserve the status quo.