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How to fix Congress — according to Congress

Pay staff more. Improve technology. And think big.

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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has shown support for increasing congressional staff pay.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, members of Congress took turns telling a special committee of Congress what was wrong with Congress.

The hearing went on for hours. Thirty-two House members spoke before the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and another three submitted written testimony. Some came with ideas out of left field. But almost all members came with a seriousness of purpose that should inspire the committee and remind it that it has some serious and important work to do.

At the hearing, two issues generated the most consistent interest from members: staffing resources (including hiring practices) and technology (including cybersecurity policies). If the committee is looking for some low-hanging fruit, these members have put several ideas on the table. (For a summary of who testified about what, Demand Progress has a useful spreadsheet. For individual member testimonies, see here.)

Since I’m not a technologist, I have less to say about technology. But judging from members’ testimonies, it seems that Congress could be doing a lot more in the area of cybersecurity and could probably make life a lot easier for members and staffers by investing in some state-of-the-art technology. This should be a no-brainer.

But on the topic of staffing, I was delighted to see many members adopt the familiar refrain I’ve been singing for years: Congress is weak because it doesn’t invest in its own internal staff resources. Salaries are too low, and demands on staff are too high to justify a low salary for long. Washington is an expensive city, especially for families. And lobbying and executive branch agency jobs pay better. For decades, Congress has been deinvesting in its own internal capacity while the executive branch and especially corporate lobbyists have beefed up tremendously. This needs to change.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) put it most strongly, describing Congress’s cuts to its own staff as “institutional vandalism.”

For the last 25 years we have watched as our Congress – the Article 1 branch – has become more and more feeble. This decay is from deliberate institutional vandalism. Through our own efforts, we have made the Article 1 branch into the third branch

Our tiny staffs are overwhelmed by the army of corporate lobbyists roaming our halls and a world growing more socially, economically, and technologically complex at a stunning rate. …

We need don’t need a brain surgeon to tell us what needs to be done to fix this decay. Actually, we might: because we need a new brain! We need to reverse the congressional lobotomy begun in 1995. We need empowered chairmen and women who can assemble legislation organically.

We need to retain skilled staffs who can preserve institutional memory.

Pascrell zeroed in on investment in expert staff as the core problem:

Ultimately, nearly all our problems come back to staggering underinvestment. We need to drastically reform Members’ Representational Allowances to keep staff. Staff should not be enticed to leave for lobbyist pay, taking their expertise with them.

You get what you pay for. If you care about a Congress that is the first branch, the preeminent branch, you support it that way.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) gave a similarly impassioned case for investment in Congress:

Corporations, outside interest groups and trade associations have poured billions into an increasingly sophisticated ecosystem of influence, designed to win the hearts and minds of policymakers and their staff and eager to fill the void created by the demands of modern campaign finance. Simultaneously, Congress to a large degree, at the behest of those same outside interests has self-imposed massive cuts to its own budget, staffing and expert resources, like the Congressional Research Service and the now-moribund of Office of Technology Assessment The resulting low-pay, long hours for our staff have led to increased turnover, degraded institutional memory and a weakening of our basic capacity, working to only further empowering outside interests.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) made the case for more staff in a way that might appeal directly to the self-interest of all members:

Knowledge is power, and Members gain knowledge through staff. If a member does not have enough expert staff they lack the ability to develop their own legislation, offer amendments, and make good decisions in representing their constituents.

A few members also framed the case for increasing staff and staff pay in terms of better oversight. For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) argued:

In order to handle the complexities of overseeing the executive branch and ensure that the legislation we pass is fully vetted, we must make a significant investment in our committees and committee staff. I would encourage this committee to provide recommendations to increase committee staff pay, incentivize committee staff retention, and significantly increase the overall number of committee staff.

In a sign that party leaders (at least on the Democratic side) are taking the issue seriously, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) testified that:

Member and staff pay and benefits have not kept pace with the private sector. Many talented, bright, and patriotic citizens are choosing not to step up and serve because they believe doing so would place them under financial burden. Others are choosing to leave mid-career, and the result is that we lose their expertise and institutional knowledge. If we want to attract a more diverse group of Americans to run for office and work on Capitol Hill, we need to make it financially possible for them to do so.

Several members also argued for funding the Office of Technology Assessment, which once provided a source of independent science and technology policy expertise to Congress.

In addition to the sheer number of staff, several members also argued for more attention to diversity in hiring, with more focus on the staff pipeline.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) made an impassioned plea for expanding beyond traditional hiring pipelines:

The paid internships authorized by the House are a good start, but not enough. As someone that taught at, and now is fortunate enough to represent, a university where 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded to first-generation college students, I know how early experiences like getting that diploma, or finding a key internship, or landing that first job, can shape a lifetime of professional success. This body should help amplify the talents of ambitious young people, particularly those whose voices have not traditionally been heard.

I’ve been writing about and following congressional capacity for years now. This is the first time I’ve heard this many members of Congress talk this forthrightly about the need to invest in Congress as an institution. It is an encouraging sign.

Another issue I’ve been concerned about for a while is campaign finance. I was surprised more members didn’t testify about it. However, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) talked about the pathology of fundraising.

Too often, Members arrive in Washington expecting to make a difference, but quickly lose faith after realizing that their ability to make a difference is tied to their fundraising prowess. Republicans and Democrats alike are required to raise a certain amount for their respective Party Campaign Committees before the Steering Committee will even consider granting a Member’s preferred committee assignments. Chairmanships and “A” Committees require an even greater dedication to fundraising for the party. This should not be the way we do business. Our constituents didn’t elect us to raise money, they elected us to solve problems. This practice must stop.

He did not recommend a specific proposal to stop the practice, however.

As for the other issues: members talked about the need to reorganize committees; about improving ethics; about changing franking rules; and rationalizing the schedule; about spending less time flying back and forth to their districts; about the need for more collaboration with their colleagues; about why members shouldn’t sleep on their couches; and, of course, the need for more bipartisanship. (You can read all the ideas here.)

There was even one call (from Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI)) for a constitutional amendment lengthening House terms from two years to four years, which is definitely worth thinking about. The United States is the only democracy in the world with two-year terms for the legislature, which means that members are constantly focused on their next reelection, which undermines governing.

Bergman also advocated term limits — five consecutive terms, which would amount to 20 years under the four-year terms. I’m generally not a fan of term limits for Congress, which generally empower lobbyists and bureaucrats as the true long-term players. But I could potentially see the case for 30-year term limits, on the argument that at a certain point, expertise turns to laziness.

Perhaps the best and most important advice from Clark, who urged the committee to abide by two words: “think big.” Clark told the committee:

While there are a thousand reforms we could discuss to improve our institution, I want to leave you with one last recommendation: think big. We will never regain our status as a coequal branch of government until we start treating ourselves as a coequal branch. And that requires big ideas and big investments. I encourage you to think beyond minor tweaks to policy and procedures and explore major investments that help us truly regain our status as the first branch of government.

I’d like to amplify Clark’s charge. The modernization committee has a real opportunity to reconceptualize what Congress can be. Plenty of small-bore changes might make modest improvements here and there. But the problems of American self-governance are bigger than modest tweaks can fix. Members of Congress are clearly frustrated with how the institution is functioning. So are the American people. The moment is ripe for big change.

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