The Congressional Budget Office: "An Excellent Skunk at the Congressional Picnic"

At the Washington Post, Philip Joyce writes:

"Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mick Mulvaney, recently said that 'the time of CBO has probably come and gone,' noting that there are plenty of other places, including the OMB itself and Washington think tanks, that can estimate the costs of policies. Mulvaney is far from the first official to disagree with the CBO’s numbers, but he is one of very few people who want to get rid of the CBO altogether. He joins former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been trying to gut the CBO for decades. In fact, a 1995 argument by Gingrich that the agency should be cleaned out prompted The Washington Post, in an editorial, to remind readers of the important role that CBO had played as 'an excellent skunk' at the 'congressional picnic.'"


The Downsides of Using Executive Agency Detailees

By Casey Burgat

In a previous post, I recounted the advantages of using executive detailees as a means of combatting staffing shortages on Capitol Hill. In short, agency detailees can serve as a free source of policy expertise to Congress, providing committees experience and insight into agency decision making and likely responses to congressional actions.

But, as with all governing arrangements, executive branch detailees are not always an unalloyed good. Detailees, as some Hill veterans will explain, can come with costs.

1. Detailees can have divided loyalties

Detailees can have a hard time shedding their agency allegiances, ultimately resulting in divided loyalties between their parent agency and their new congressional committee. These allegiances may be unconscious byproducts of spending a career in the executive branch.

Other agency employees, however, may have more deliberate congressional prejudices. Such detailees view Congress and its committees as institutions unfamiliar with the intricate inner-workings of their agency, and ones attempting to encroach on their expertise and operations with new laws and a constant barrage of oversight information requests. In these instances, detailees may struggle to work in support of the institutional interests of Congress.

2. Detailees can have fixed policy preferences

Relatedly, borrowed agency employees may bring with them explicit policy preferences, often within specific issue areas they handled within their parent agency. Serving as a policy expert on a relevant committee may provide an opportunity to grind such a policy ax and, in turn, warp the policy-making processes within their new committee.

3. Detailees often need training

Detailees are often unfamiliar with the legislative process require basic training in congressional procedures once they get to the Hill. Given that committee resources are already severely strapped, providing such training further saps the time of permanent committee staff.

The time and resources spent bringing detailees up to speed on the ways of the Hill can result in a small return on the investment for Congress. What’s more, because detailees are loaned out for a limited time---often a year or less before returning to the executive branch---a constant cycle of orientation, training, working, departing can develop where very little time is spent on intricate policy making.

4. Detailees can mute the call for increasing staffing capacity

A growing dependence on detailees as a means to compensate for decreasing congressional capacity may result in some to argue that increasing the number of permanent congressional staff isn’t necessary. Detailees are seen by some as capacity Band Aids covering up the more threatening conditions of limited expertise and too few staff in Congress. Increasing committee reliance on their use may perpetuate a situation of inadequate congressional staffing levels.

Agency detailees can be a source of policy expertise for congressional committees, but their contributions can’t be assumed. Detailees, themselves, can be a drain on the already limited capacity of Congress, and ultimately make Congress less effective, less productive, and more susceptible to outside influence.

Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute.

Lobbying and Congressional Capacity

Roll Call's Kate Ackley writes:

"Demand has increased for former officials, including former lawmakers who are more likely to become lobbyists than in past decades, as congressional staff become more focused on in-district constituent services than on policy matters, LaPira and Thomas argue. They trace a big drop in congressional staff capacity to the speakership of Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in the 1990s, who eliminated roughly one-third of the House standing committees and cut staff in the remaining ones. The result was 'a 37 percent decline in committee staff,' they write."

Read more at:

ICYMI: What CBO's Score of the Health Insurance Bills Tells Us About the Budget Process

Yuval Levin writes at National Review:

"The CBO is not politically biased. But its work is beset by challenges that run much deeper than that: They are structural, and require us to think about both the CBO and the larger congressional budget process in which it plays a part in terms of institutional reform...."

Read more at:

Want a Better Budget Process? Make It More Open and Deliberative

Source: Congressional Research Service.

Source: Congressional Research Service.

James Wallner writes at the Washington Examiner:

"The budget process should be structured so that those interested in an outcome can freely participate in deliberations when they desire. Sustainable compromise around fiscal decisions in the current polarized environment is possible only if members and their constituents feel as if their claims are fairly adjudicated in the process.

"This dynamic can be created by adopting reforms that accentuate the inflection points in the budget process and that allow for open and fair consideration of all policy ideas. For example, deadlines like the debt ceiling can force members to make tough decisions to budget. In contrast, reforms like biennial budgeting may make sense in theory while still failing to address Congress' underlying debt problem...."



Levin Center Convenes Scholars On Congressional Oversight

Source: Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School

Source: Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School

In an effort to analyze and improve congressional oversight, the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School hosted 23 scholars from 19 institutions on Friday, June 9, for a Scholars Roundtable.

“Bipartisan congressional oversight is as important as ever as a means to investigate complex issues,” said former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Levin Center at Wayne Law and the law school’s distinguished legislator in residence. “This gathering of leading scholars is intended to generate new research to make congressional investigations more effective and useful.”

The roundtable discussion at Wayne State University Law School, located in Levin’s hometown of Detroit, brought together scholars with academic disciplines ranging from law and government, to political theory and history. Discussion included past research efforts as well as developing a national research agenda on congressional oversight. Potential future research topics include defining and measuring the effectiveness of oversight, exploring incentives for members of Congress to conduct oversight and understanding how congressional oversight efforts affect policy outcomes....


One More Bit of Good News About Congressional Capacity

By Casey Burgat

Within the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was authorized to establish senior level positions "to meet critical scientific, technical, professional, or executive needs of the Office." 

Such an authorization is a clear signal that Congress values CBOs nonpartisan budget and economic analysis, and wants to increase the capacity of the Office to better inform members on the economic impacts of potential legislation.

Authorization Language:

ADMINISTRATIVE PROVISION ESTABLISHMENT OF SENIOR LEVEL POSITIONS SEC. 1101. (a) Notwithstanding the fourth sentence of section 201(b) of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (2 U.S.C. 601(b)), the Director of the Congressional Budget Office may establish and fix the compensation of senior level positions in the Congressional Budget Office to meet critical scientific, technical, professional, or executive needs of the Office. 

ICYMI: The Washington Post Takes Up Congressional Capacity

Max Ehrenfreund writes:

"With so much work to do, even a veteran lawmaker steeped in the details of public policy could struggle to keep it all straight. For the heavy lifting of writing amendments and making bills, legislators have traditionally turned to their aides, who spend their work days burrowing into niche policy areas.

"But at a time when lawmakers are badly in need of advice from their staff, the typical lawmaker will have fewer of them to turn to. The average number of aides supporting a rank-and-file House member has been in decline for several years because of budget cuts.

"Meanwhile, Congress's independent research bodies — agencies once filled with lawyers, engineers, physicists and economists on call to answer technical questions about complicated bills — have long been short-staffed as lawmakers have looked for ways to save money...."


Omnibuses and the Power of the Purse

Don Wolfensberger writes in the Hill:

"House Republicans are reportedly considering bundling all 12 regular appropriations bills into an omnibus measure and passing it prior to the August recess (The Hill, May 31, 2017).  Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s financial services subcommittee, is championing the “go ugly early” strategy as a way to avoid a fiscal train wreck in October. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), and the Republican leadership, have not yet weighed-in.

"Based on past experiences with late omnibus money bills, accelerating the process will only exacerbate the harm done because it forfeits up front any remaining control Congress may claim over its constitutionally endowed power of the purse. Granted, making laws has always been an ugly, sausage-making process. But, churning-out sausages, one at a time, is at least visually and intellectually comprehensible.  Putting the whole hog on a rapidly spinning skewer, engulfed in a cloud of smoke, has a way of causing the public audience to tear-up and choke in anger and distrust....."


How Congress Became Colonized by the Imperial Presidency

Ever since Arthur Schlesinger’s 1973 book coined the phrase, the so-called “imperial presidency” has been a perennial topic of our national political discourse. At a time when the American branches of government are separate but unequal, the seven essays collected in The Imperial Presidency and the Constitution trace when fears of an imperial presidency first arose, the extent to which such fears are justified and what can be done about it.

Adam J. White’s contribution, “The Administrative State and the Imperial Presidency,” cautions not to conflate the “imperial presidency” with the administrative state itself. As White points out, the administrative state is “first and foremost a creation of Congress,” and “to at least some extent, a necessary creation.”

By contrast, the imperial presidency refers to the power the president wields through his office. While this power can be channeled and enhanced through the apparatus of the administrative state, an imperial presidency also “can restrain the administrative state, as in the Reagan administration … and, less obviously, the administrative state can restrain an imperial president.”

In modern times, of course, the power of the presidency and the administrative state have grown in tandem. “The president wields executive power broadly to expand the administrative state, and the administrative state acts in service of the current president’s agenda,” White writes.

After various failed attempts by Congress itself to act as an administrative body during the Articles of Confederation era, the U.S. Constitution provided for an energetic executive, which Alexander Hamilton described as “essential to the steady administration of the laws.” Despite this, the Constitution offered little in the way of an affirmative vision of the administrative bureaucracy, an omission some scholars have referred to as “the hole in the Constitution.”

Although there were earlier antecedents, Congress’ creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 marked the modern administrative state’s arrival. Ove time, the ICC’s powers were enhanced by Congress to encompass both judicial and legislative powers, given its ability to both set rates and adjudicate disputes. During the Progressive Era and through the New Deal, more administrative agencies were built on the ICC model, including the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission.

Importantly, these agencies were distinct from the traditional executive branch departments and thus operated “outside of the direct oversight of the president,” White notes. Progressive policymakers—starting with some in the Franklin Roosevelt administration—quickly grew frustrated with the agencies’ ability to “impede an energetic liberal president’s regulatory agenda.”

Years later, conservatives also began to bemoan the independent nature of certain agencies. As the Reagan administration sought to cut back on the regulatory state, it attempted to increase the president’s power over the administrative state through mechanisms such as centralized regulatory review under the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Since Reagan, presidents of both parties increasingly have embraced greater presidential control over federal agencies. Some used that control to expand the administrative state’s power, while others have sought to curtail it.

The “most straightforward” way to shrink the administrative state, White argues, “would be for Congress to do the work of taking delegated powers away from the agencies, by amending statutes.” Since many legislators prefer to delegate their power in an effort to avoid responsibility, White views this option as unrealistic.

This leads White to the “second best option,” which is to pass some form of broad regulatory reform legislation that revamps the processes through which agencies enact rules. He mentions the REINS Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act as two possible options. R Street actually has identified a whole menu of options from which Congress feasibly could choose.

More broadly, White points out that using the imperial presidency as a means to control and direct the administrative state is no longer an effective mechanism to rein it in. Rather, it’s far past time that the other branches assert themselves and join the fray. One possibility is for the judicial branch to revisit its doctrines that grant significant deference to federal agencies.

In many ways, Andrew Rudalevige’s contribution, “Constitutional Structure, Political History and the Invisible Congress,” picks up where White’s essay leaves off. When the system of separated powers works as intended, the legislative and executive branches operate as “rivals for power,” making their relationship contentious, rather than cooperative. Although the Founding Fathers were more concerned about the legislature accreting power than the executive, Rudalevige’s chapter retraces how both structural and political factors have created the exact opposite dynamic.

Rudalevige lays out an obvious—but often underappreciated—truth: the president has a built-in advantage in that he is just a single person. By contrast, Congress must function as a 535-member conglomeration of legislators spread across two different chambers and hailing from different political parties and geographical regions. Given that each member carries “their own localized electoral incentives,” they will “rarely find it in their interests to work together, much less to confront the executive branch.”

Another factor Rudalevige pinpoints for Congress’ decline is the rise of political polarization. Politics has increasingly become a team sport: “A vote against presidential overreach is now seen by the president’s party colleagues as damaging to the party brand, and thus to their own careers.” The result is that legislators are more likely to toe the party line in pursuit of short-term policy victories, rather than vote to strengthen Congress as an institution.

Rudalevige also highlights how modern travel has allowed congressmen to transit back-and-forth from their home districts to Washington with relative ease. This has led to the rise of the “Tuesday-Thursday club of drop-in legislators,” who spend more time pressing the flesh with donors and constituents back home than doing the hard work of hammering out legislative compromises. One option is for Congress to extend its work weeks, which could increase the amount of floor time available to conduct legislative business.

Exercising more effective oversight doesn’t just mean finding more time; it also requires more capacity. Rudalevige cites R Street’s Kevin Kosar, who has chronicled the decline in congressional staff and pay levels over the past 40 years. Beefing up congressional staff, as well as support systems like the Congressional Research Service, would help address this deficiency.

Other possibilities include forming new institutions such as a Congressional Regulation Office—as proposed by Kosar and the Brookings Institution’s Phillip Wallach—to provide independent cost-benefit analyses and retrospective reviews of regulations. A final idea—and one long advocated by policy wonks—is a return to “regular order” budgeting, in which Congress breaks the federal budget into bite-sized pieces rather than relying on last-second, thousand-page omnibus spending bills to keep the government’s lights on.

While all of these ideas are available and ready for the picking, Rudalevige admits that “current returns are unpromising” that Congress will actually implement any of them. Nonetheless, he’s correct in warning that “the matter demands our attention even so.” Let’s hope Congress—and the American citizenry—heeds his call.

How Omnibus Spending Bills Erode Legislator Accountability



By Tony McCann


Staff plays an essential role in the appropriations process as in all legislation. The legislative process, however, requires members to cast a recorded vote on amendments and the bill; thus validating, modifying or rejecting various provisions of the bill; i.e. giving them “ownership” of the legislation. However, the failure to pass individual appropriations bills, and in some cases the failure to even consider them in subcommittee or full committee means legislation is enacted in massive omnibus bills with virtually no input by the elected representative of the people.

 How Regular Order Enforces Legislator Accountability

The federal government and the issues it addresses are extraordinarily complex.  The range of problems and the depth of technical and political concern is such that few if any of the 535 elected representatives in Congress are able to master and remain current on even a few of them. Staff (both committee and personal), then must serve as an extension of their individual member or the committee members – but they, of course, are not members.

Congressional process (“regular order”) creates a series of points which, at the very least, require members to go on record on bills and amendments. In appropriations, like other processes there is a set procedure. First the subcommittee staff drafts a proposed chairman’s mark. The staff attempts to create a document reflecting the chairman’s public policy views, legislative strategies, and partisan tactics among others factors.

The draft is then reviewed by the chairman who have varying degrees of interest and capability; for some their review is perfunctory, for other it deals with a few specific accounts or issues and for others it is a detailed discussion of each account. The point is that the chairman, an elected member, goes through the staff document in as much detail as he or she feels appropriate.

The next step is the formal, public, mark-up of the bill in subcommittee. Historically and functionally these members are (or hopefully will become) the Congress’ most expert members in the particular subject matter. Here again, the interests and capabilities of the members vary. Ultimately, they all have to vote on amendments and the overall bill – a bill which was initially drafted by staff and reviewed with varying degrees of detail by the chairman.

The process then follows the normal pattern of full committee mark up, passage of the bill by each house and passage of the conference report. At each level, members, alone, must come to a conclusion and publically vote on amendments and final disposition. Factors entering into the decision and levels of interest surely vary, but in the end, what started out as a staff document has some level of member ownership and a series of public votes on its content.

 How Omnibus Spending Bills Erode Legislator Accountability

Over the last 10 years, if each appropriations bill were enacted separately there would have been 120 versions, acted upon at each step.[1] The reality, of course, is far different.

  • Only 7 bills went through the process as separate bills, enacted separately;[2]
  •  In three cases, bills were conferenced in the omnibus bill that had not been considered at any level in either house;
  • In an additional 17 cases the bills conferenced had not been considered at any level in one house; and
  • The House chose to skip the subcommittee stage and go directly to the full committee 43 times and the Senate 64 times.

All members are busy with legislative business and perpetual re-election campaigns. Chairmen are not going to review bills if mark-up is not imminent. Subcommittee and full committee members will react similarly. By the time it is clear that the final action will be a massive omnibus bill, chairmen and leadership will tend to focus on only the most contentious items, those with ideological elements or those with local constituent interests.

The simple fact is that as the steps are skipped or the process skipped entirely, the role of elected representatives, already far too tenuous, is virtually eliminated. When finally the omnibus bill is ready for consideration, it comes to the floor of the two houses as a massive document, often running many hundreds of pages. Occasionally it is available on the floor and voted on by members as a draft with handwritten corrections and comments: a stack of paper measured in feet![3] No one seeing this massive document for the first time, and with only a short time for review, has the capacity to review and understand any but a few items or provisions.

Thus a massive, omnibus bill may come to the floor and be enacted including individual bills that no member in one or both houses has ever seen and in which the staff draft from the early spring is still the “policy” for most of the bill.

S. Anthony (Tony) McCann serves on the faculty of the University of Maryland teaching courses in Public Policy and Budgeting. In addition to his extensive executive branch experience, Tony has congressional experience as the clerk and staff Director of the subcommittee of the House appropriations committee that funds most of the federal government’s discretionary programs in health, education and labor.


[1] One appropriations bill from each of the 12 subcommittees for each of the 10 years.

[2] This data is derived from the Congress.Gov website, the Appropriations page.  Actions at a particular level are based on indications on the site that action occurred at that level.

[3] See for example the Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 1999, a 920 page document with the footnote “*Note: This is a typeset print of the original hand enrollment as signed by the President on October 21, 1998. The text is printed without corrections.” Similar language is included in Public Law 104-135, the “Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996”

How Executive Detailees Could Help Ease Congress’ Staffing Problems

Source: Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin, 2017.

Source: Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin, 2017.

By Casey Burgat

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that Congress has a staffing problem. While the executive branch employs more than 4 million people, the legislative branch has only about 30,000. This number includes personnel toiling for agencies that do not readily come to mind as legislative, like the Government Publishing Office, the Architect of the Capitol and the U.S. Capitol Police.

While congressional capacity advocates shout for more funding and personnel to be allocated to the legislative branch, political scientists Russell Mills and Jennifer Selin examine the use of an often-overlooked stream of expertise available to congressional committees: federal agency detailees. Detailees are executive agency personnel with a particular policy mastery who are temporarily loaned out to congressional committees. The typical detailee assignment runs one year.

Hill operators and observers have long known policy expertise resides primarily in congressional committee staff. Compared to House and Senate personal office aides, committee staffers typically have more experience and narrower portfolios, both of which enhance the abilities of committees and their members to conduct oversight, draft legislation and develop fruitful lines of communication with relevant agency stakeholders.

However, as Mills and Selin point out in a recent piece in Legislative Studies Quarterly, there are only about half as many committee staff as there were in 1980, while inflation-adjusted pay levels have fallen 20 percent for many committee aides. This reduction in resources has hampered committees’ oversight capabilities, in addition to abetting the centralization of policymaking in leadership offices or its complete delegation to the executive branch.

Mills and Selin argue detailees offer at least three specific benefits to supplement Congress’ legislative and oversight responsibilities:

  1. Detailees provide additional legislative support. Though committee staffers are usually issue specialists, “detailees often have specialized, expert knowledge of a policy, [and] they are able to provide awareness more traditional congressional staff may not have.” Moreover, given their personal experience within the agencies, detailees offer committees important insight into the decision-making processes and likely agency responses to potential congressional action.
  2. Detailees assist with executive branch oversight. “The process for securing information through requests directly to a federal agency is slower and involves agency coordination with the presidential administration. Detailees provide a way around these problems.” Simply having agency contacts and being able to connect committee staffers directly to those agency personnel most likely to respond quickly with accurate information can expedite the frustratingly slow information-gathering process vital to conducting effective congressional oversight.
  3. Detailees supplement interest-group engagement. In developing policy, committee staffers spend much of their time meeting with relevant policy stakeholders. “Committee staff routinely assists members of Congress by meeting with interest groups to gather their input for legislative initiatives as well as to hear their objections or support for actions taken by executive agencies.” Detailees provide the committee more, and different, stakeholder contacts established from the agency perspective, which allows for better information filtering and a more informed assessment of legislative potential.

Finally, and importantly, Mills and Selin point out that use of detailees is a rare win-win for both the legislative and the executive branches. The benefits to Congress are clear: committees gain expert-level staffers with experience and connections to the agencies under the committee’s purview, all on the agencies’ dime. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has noted:

These detailees apply their expertise in researching issues, staffing hearings, and working on legislation. In return, they gain valuable experience, which develops their careers and benefits their agencies.

The gains for the executive branch are less intuitive. After all, the agency loses a competent staffer who then offers Congress firsthand insight into agency operations, even potentially providing increased oversight to the very agency from which the staffer originated.

But Mills and Selin note that, from qualitative interviews they conducted with current and former detailees, they discovered that “detailees gain experience in the legislative process, can represent the interests and perspectives of the agency, and give the agency a conduit to committee decision making.”

In other words, just as detailees provide insider information to committees on agency operations, agencies profit from their detailees returning to the agency with intelligence on committee decision-making, policymaking and oversight capabilities. All of which our personnel-strapped national legislature badly needs.

Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute.

Next Meeting: Monday, June 12 at 12pm

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Money and Congressional Capacity

Previously, the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group has examined aspects of congressional spending on its staff and resources. This session, we consider two other money issues: lobbying and campaign finance. How are lobbying and congressional capacity related? How does congressional fundraising affect Congress's efforts to carry out its legislative and oversight duties? 

Come join us as we discuss these questions. Lunch will be provided.

Lee Drutman, New America
Meredith McGehee, Issue One


Another Major Resource On How To Conduct Oversight

Want to learn more about how to conduct oversight? Then have a look at this volume.

"The Congressional Research Service (CRS) developed the Congressional Oversight Manual over
30 years ago, following a three-day December 1978 Workshop on Congressional Oversight and
Investigations. The workshop was organized by a group of House and Senate committee aides
from both parties and CRS at the request of the bipartisan House leadership. The Manual was
produced by CRS with the assistance of a number of House committee staffers. In subsequent
years, CRS has sponsored and conducted various oversight seminars for House and Senate staff
and updated the Manual as circumstances warranted."

The latest iteration of CRS's Oversight Manual was published in December 2014. Congressional staff can get copies via; everyone else can download it at

How Congressional Power Became Separate, But Unequal

At the R Street Institute Blog, Jarrett Dieterle writes:

"A recent paper by Matthew Glassman of the Congressional Research Service lays out a primer on the history of the separation of powers, as well as providing clues about Congress’ dwindling status within that system. As Glassman recounts, the notion of governmental power being comprised of distinct functions—lawmaking, administration and adjudication—can be traced back to the ancients, including greats like Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero. The theory was more fully developed in the 17th and 18th century by Locke and Montesquieu, who acted as intellectual guideposts to the American founders...."


Eight Good Pieces of News About Congress

R Street Institute's Casey Burgat writes:

It is not breaking news that most Americans are pessimistic about Congress. This negativity is reflected in Congress’ dismal 20 percent approval rating and the another equally telling statistic that 79 percent of Americans simply don’t trust the government in Washington to do the right thing on most occasions. Both indicators are at near-historic lows.
Undeniably, Congress earned some of this opprobrium. Not passing budgets, failing to resolve policy controversies (e.g., health care insurance) and generally giving the outward appearance of being in the grips of maniacal hyper-partisanship—our national legislature has looked anything but august.
Nonetheless, there are good things happening on Capitol Hill that merit consideration and wider media attention. Especially encouraging are the signs that Congress is investing in its capacity to get things done and taking action to strengthen itself vis-a-vis the executive branch.
Here are eight pieces of good news about our national legislature we can all celebrate....


Legislative Branch Support Staffing Down 45 Percent Since 1975

Brookings' Curtlyn Kramer writes:

"Less discussed in a conversation about U.S. government personnel is the legislative branch, where Congress also relies on a large staff to support its operations. These staffs include those of members of Congress and congressional committees, as well as of multiple support agencies that provide Congress with non-partisan, expert information, such as the Congressional Budget Office. Chapter 5 of the most recent update of Vital Statistics on Congress examines how the staff rolls of those offices and agencies have fared over time. Across a number of tables, the picture painted of the workforce tasked with conducting the business of Congress is a bleak one. Notably, the staffs of three support agencies – the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office, have lost 45 percent of their combined staffs from 1975 to 2015...."


Is Congress Broken? Not Necessarily

By Richard M. Skinner

William F. Connelly, Jr., John J. Pitney, Jr., and Gary J. Schmitt, Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

Woodrow Wilson would not like this book. Newt Gingrich would not like it either. Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock contains much criticism of the model of “party government” promulgated by Wilson and implemented by Gingrich. Under this model, united parties offer contrasting agendas to the public, which then chooses one. The winning party then implements its policies, with little role for deliberation, in committees or otherwise. But as Kathryn Pearson (University of Minnesota) notes in her chapter, such parliamentary-style parties fit awkwardly with our constitutional system.

The Anti-Federalists would not like this book. Many libertarians and populists probably would not like it either. Most of the contributors to this volume defend the role of expertise and deliberation – of learning and reasoning – in the work of Congress. While many of the authors believe in limited government, none show hostility to career politicians. They also generally defend transactional politics – bargaining and compromising – as a necessary means of making government function. Brookings’ Jonathan Rauch’s “political realism” provides a dominant framework for this volume. Echoing Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” he declares that government is hard, often frustrating work. We need institutions and relationships – both formal and informal – that make politics function, even some of their workings may not look pretty in close-up. Stability is difficult, and should be prized. Transparency can undermine governance, even when well-intentioned.

James Madison would like this book. William F. Connelly, Jr. (Washington and Lee University) and John J. Pitney, Jr. (Claremont McKenna) provide another important framework in their argument for “Madisonian republicanism.“ They particularly defend the separation of powers against its critics, including those who automatically assume that gridlock is bad.  Congress is worth defending as an institution, not simply as a means of enacting partisan goals. Connelly and Pitney also agree with Madison in accepting self-interest, partisan difference, and political ambition as normal parts of government.  

This work has a rich sense of congressional history. Daniel Stid (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) discusses the impact of the APSA Committees on Congress and on Political Parties, which both inspired activities of reformers for decades after their work was published in the wake of World War II. Donald Wolfensberger (Wilson Center) traces the evolution of House rules, from the Founding to the current era. Kathryn Pearson discusses the history of the committee-party relationship in the House of Representatives. All three chapters delight the reader, and should interest both academics and political practitioners. Stid’s work is especially fascinating, since he shows how two sets of ideas profoundly shaped the evolution of Congress and influenced the worldviews of figures holding disparate ideologies. (See below.)

Given the editors’ avowed allegiance to James Madison, it should not be surprising that multiple authors are concerned with improving deliberation in Congress. Wolfensberger and Daniel Palazzolo (University of Richmond) both show concern that “party government” can inhibit deliberation. If most decisions are made by a small group of leaders, and if restrictive rules inhibit amending activity, members have little opportunity to discuss the merits of legislation. In a chapter on the Senate in an otherwise House-centric volume, Peter C. Hanson (University of Denver) argues that reliance on omnibus legislation can sacrifice deliberation that would be stimulated by traditional appropriations bills.

The declining role played by congressional committees concerns several of the contributors to Is Congress Broken?. Committees allow members to acquire expertise and to participate in policymaking. But, beginning with the Gingrich Speakership, committees have lost much of their importance in the House of Representatives. Committee staff has shrunk, committee hearings have been less frequent, and committees are increasingly bypassed on critical legislation. Melanie Harlowe bemoans oversight hearings that have become highly partisan, contentious, and lacking in substance. Multiple authors argue that the imposition on term limits on Republican chairs and ranking minority members has reduced the incentive to acquire expertise. They argue that committees should play a more central role in legislation, and that committee-passed bills should be more often protected in the Rules Committee. Perhaps if more members had the opportunity to engage in meaningful policymaking through committee work, they might be more vested in the ultimate outcome, and be less attracted to obstructionist tactics.

The desire to revitalize committees fits with a broader concern with expertise. After growing in the 1960s and 1970s, Congress’s in-house sources of expertise have shrunk. Not only has committee staff been slashed, but the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office have also seen their resources cut back. The Office of Technology Assessment was completely abolished in 1995. Instead, members have become increasingly dependent on lobbyists for information.  A highly centralized House, where seniority no longer carries the power it once did, gives fewer members the opportunity or incentive to build expertise.

The authors mostly show skepticism about the impact of the “party government” that has developed over the past generation. Stid traces how Woodrow Wilson’s vision influenced the 1950 APSA Report on Political Parties, and, in turn, the Democratic Study Group of the 1950s and 1960s, the post-reform Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, and the Gingrich-led Republicans of the 1990s. Wolfensberger discussed how the latter two groups used the Rules Committee to impose “partisan governance” on the House floor, allowing the majority party to effectively shut out the minority. The discussion of the rise of party government could have benefited from more recognition of how it served as an attractive paradigm to those frustrated by existing arrangements: post-World War II liberal Democrats dissatisfied by the ability of conservative committee chairmen to block civil rights legislation or expansions of the New Deal, Reagan-Bush-era Republicans who found that a Democratic majority increasingly shut them out of policymaking.

There are some signs that the “party government” model is breaking down, at least for Republicans. Speaker John Boehner attempted to dominate the House as his immediate predecessors did. But Tea Party dissent made centralized leadership frustrating at best, impossible at worse. Paul Ryan promised a more open legislative process and a return to “regular order.” So far, he has delivered mixed results.

Several authors offer ideas to make the legislative process both smoother and more participatory. Restoring earmarks might make it easier to build majorities, although Hanson urges that earmarks be made available on a more limited scale than they were before 2010, so as to keep appropriators from being overwhelmed. But as Mark Schmitt (New America) has noted, for earmarks to work, members must want them – some members of the House Freedom Caucus take pride in their lack of interest in traditional pork barrel. Hanson and Pearson call for less reliance on omnibus legislation and other “must-pass” legislation.

While his paradigm of “political realism” suffuses this volume, Rauch actually differs from many of his fellow contributors on some key points. If several authors feel that centralized party leadership has gone too far, Rauch wants more of it, and does not see a trade-off between party government and vibrant committees. This viewpoint fits with his concern with excessive individualism, which few other contributors see as a problem that besets the present-day Congress. He also dwells on topics such as campaign finance and primaries, which appear rarely or not at all in the other writings in this volume. On the other hand, Rauch’s warning against political amateurism and defense of traditional politics are both quite timely.

Reading Is Congress Broken? would be most appropriate for journalists, political practitioners, and others interested in learning about Congress through recent scholarship. The volume’s historical perspective could be particularly helpful to those who are familiar with Capitol Hill today, but would like to learn more about how the current system evolved. Like many edited volumes, this work also allows busy readers to get up to speed on the work done by multiple scholars, without the time commitment required by entire books. (The volume grew out of a 2015 conference held at the American Enterprise Institute, and sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation).

There is a reason why Is Congress Broken? ends in a question mark. Connelly and Pitney, in particular, appear comfortable with a legislative branch that features partisan conflict and self-interest. In fact, they see it as thoroughly compatible with Madison’s vision.  But all the authors see much that could be improved. Congress needs to become better equipped to play a co-equal role in our political system. And perhaps no change could do more than restoring Congress’s “brain” by revitalizing the committee system and modernizing its internal sources of expertise.

Dr. Richard Skinner (@richardmskinner) is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  He has taught in the Washington programs of New York University and the University of Southern California, and for Johns Hopkins University, American University, and the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.  

Video of Meeting On: Does Congress Have the Capacity it Needs to Conduct Oversight?

Envisioned by the founders as the "first" branch of government, Congress has the responsibility of overseeing and managing the other two arms of our constitutional system. And yet, as the executive branch has grown in power and prestige, Congress has increasingly lost its authority.

What resources does Congress currently employ when overseeing federal agencies? Which current resources are well-used; which are under-utilized? What additional tools and resources does Congress need to engage in truly effective oversight?

This video carries the presentations given at the April 23, 2017 gathering of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group. (The video concludes before the start of the question and answer session with attendees.) The featured speakers were Justin Rood (Project On Government Oversight), Morton Rosenberg (Constitution Project), Kevin R. Kosar (R Street Institute), and Lee Drutman (New America).