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These frightening new survey results describe a Congress in crisis

Do members and staff even understand their chamber’s role in democracy?

Senators McCain, Graham, Cassidy and Johnson Discuss Health Care Reform Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the past few weeks, members of Congress have once again engaged in the time-honored practice of lambasting Congress for failing the American people.

Most prominently, John McCain’s widely discussed Senate speech before the health care vote was a blistering indictment of the chamber’s current partisan practices, with a familiar call for more “regular order.” Less prominently, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) also complained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “the Senate isn’t working.” And former House members Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and Martin Frost (D-TX) echoed McCain’s call in an op-ed in the Hill, writing, “In the myriad changes made to Congress, one stands out: abandoning regular order and the committee system as an integral mechanism to craft legislation.”

All of these calls, and many others like them, lament that Congress has become a substance-free partisan arena, in which members don’t take time to learn about policy and deliberate — in contrast to an idealized “regular order” process.

Partisanship is the most obvious problem. When everything is geared toward winning the next election, neither side wants to give an inch. It’s hard to solve public problems when even the smallest point is an opportunity for political gamesmanship.

But a second, equally important problem is capacity. Even if members truly want to translate their current pique at institutional dysfunction into genuine deliberation, into a process of “regular order” where committees develop legislation, where would they begin? They’d need to build back a whole lot of lost capacity.

Consider some responses from a new survey of senior staff from the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) titled “State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and the Senate.”

Below are the percentages of senior staff who said they were “very satisfied” with their chamber’s performance in the following benchmarks:

  • “The chamber’s human resource support and infrastructure is adequate to support staffers’ official duties (e.g., training, professional development, benefits, etc.)”: 5%
  • “Members have adequate time and resources to understand, consider, and deliberate policy and legislation”: 6%
  • “The technological infrastructure is adequate to support Members’ official duties”: 6%
  • “The chamber has adequate capacity and support (staff, research, capability, infrastructure, etc.) to perform its role in democracy”: 11%
  • “Members and staff have a strong understanding of the chamber’s role in democracy”: 20%

These are the hallmarks of an institution in crisis.

As one house legislative director told CMF, “Offices don’t have nearly enough money for a good legislative staff. My boss wants issue experts on most issues, and unfortunately, with our budget that is just impossible. He is a frosh member and was definitely shocked by the youth and lack of resources for staff upon entering Congress.”

The last result may be the most chilling, and worth repeating. At a time in which observers are increasingly worried about a constitutional crisis, only 20 percent of senior staff feel very satisfied that “Members and staff have a strong understanding of the chamber’s role in democracy.” Wow.

This is what happens when Congress doesn’t take its own capacity seriously

As I’ve written elsewhere, this Congress has been de-investing in its institutional capacity for decades, and congressional staff earn absurdly low salaries, leading to high turnover and consistent staff inexperience.

As Kathy Goldschmidt, the report’s author, writes in more sober language, “Both Congress and the public should be concerned that senior congressional staffers do not feel their human resources are adequate to support Senators’ and Representatives’ official duties.”

I’d say more than “concerned.” I’d say instead “panicked.” Also: “furious.” Also: If you are relying on Congress to check executive power, these findings are hair-raisingly scary.

The House and the Senate combined spend about $2 billion a year on their own staff. If that seems like a lot of money, compare it to an almost $4 trillion dollar federal budget. Less than 0.1 percent of the federal budget goes to staffing Congress. Congress spends even less money on itself than private interests spend on lobbyists.

So the next time members of Congress, present or former, talk about how regular order has broken down in Congress, how there’s no process and no deliberation, they should get a simple question: What have they done to provide Congress the resources to ensure high-quality deliberation can take place?

If they’re not supporting massive increases in congressional staffing and technological infrastructure to make sure senators and representatives have access to genuine expertise in developing and thinking through policy, they’re not serious about fixing Congress.