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May 23, 2024

Who Is Running Congress?

It’s largely run by rookies paid miserly wages who then move on after a few years to lucrative lobbying on K Street as a financial necessity.

Reflect on the words of Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) in his Washington Post article titled “Why Is Congress So Dumb?” Thereby hangs a tale of congressional anemia and languor. The veteran congressman laments, “our available resources and our policy staff, the brains of Congress, have been so depleted that we can’t do our jobs properly. … Congress is increasingly unable to comprehend a world growing more socially, economically and technologically multifaceted — and we did this to ourselves.”

While the size of the federal government was mushrooming, staff levels in House member offices ticked down from 6,556 in 1977 to 6,329 in 2021. Congress’ annual budget is $5.3 billion, a tiny fraction of the $1.5 trillion spent on the military-industrial-security complex. And only 10% of the $5.3 billion is spent on human capital as opposed to buildings, the Capitol Police and maintenance.

“For every $3,000 the United States spends per American on government programs,” Pascrell writes, “[Congress] allocates only $6 to oversee them.”

The congressman’s diagnosis is spot-on. It deserves further amplification.

Congress is largely run by rookies paid miserly wages who then move on after a few years to lucrative lobbying on K Street as a financial necessity. Congress is starved of institutional memory and expertise. Members and staff are constitutionally clueless, political tyros. The executive branch runs circles around them, stiff-arms oversight and typically originates major legislation for Congress to entertain.

Congressional staff commonly parachute into high-level, well-paid executive branch positions. The reverse — executive branch talent coming to work for Congress — is as rare as unicorns.

This is a disaster for Congress as a coequal branch of government and for the Constitution’s separation of powers. It is also a break in history, tracing back to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who in 1995 seized the lion’s share of legislative powers from committees and member offices by shrinking their budgets and prerogatives and enfeebling their intellectual infrastructures.

Gingrich also defunded the Office of Technology Assessment, tantamount to a congressional lobotomy. His objective was to handcuff any challenges by members or committees to his personal policy predilections and compromises with the White House. None of Gingrich’s Republican and Democratic successors — Dennis Hastert, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Mike Johnson — have undone his dumbing down of Congress.

The typical chief of staff or chief counsel in the House is a recent university or law school graduate in their mid-20s hired primarily because of their loyalty and campaign work. They are awed by the White House and ignorant of the vast powers the Constitution entrusts to the legislative branch: the war power, the power of the purse, the power to supersede treaties or executive orders, and the inherent power of contempt to sanction summarily any executive official for withholding documents or testimony from Congress.

The result, among other things, is secret government and a reliance on whistleblowers, who commonly have ulterior motives, to disclose executive branch crimes or wrongdoing in lieu of Congress. In the pre-Gingrich era, the Watergate crimes were exposed by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, and the Church Committee disclosed the crimes and wrongdoing of the intelligence community. In the post-Gingrich era, Congress goes on its hands and knees, like Henry IV at Canossa, pleading for the White House voluntarily to share information.

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees need vastly greater manpower and experts to oversee the nearly trillion-dollar annual, unaudited Pentagon spending. On 9/11, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shared that $3 trillion in Pentagon funds accumulated over an unknown number of years could not be accounted for.

Congress retains the power to return to the pre-Gingrich era. Under the Constitution, the House and Senate decide their respective budgets with no outside interference. Congress can and should raise salaries and retain experts to attract talent and make serving as congressional staff a financially viable professional career. Congress should institutionalize the recruitment of staff and experts from universities and the private sector based more on competence in discharging constitutional responsibilities and less on personal loyalty or nepotism. Overseeing and reforming a federal government which spends more than $6.5 trillion annually, regulates every nook and cranny of economic life and groans under a national debt exceeding $34 trillion is too important to do anything less.

President John Quincy Adams left the presidency in 1829. He served in the House of Representatives from 1831 to 1848, acquiring fame in opposing the gag rule, which forbid discussion of slavery in the House, and the Mexican-American War, fueled by presidential lies. Adams’ congressional service was not a demotion but a professional and constitutional step up. Today, it is inconceivable that a president would follow in his footsteps. That needs to change fast, or the executive branch will continue to run roughshod over the Constitution, Congress and the American people.


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