ICYMI: Top reads on Congress

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By Marian Currinder


Mike DeBonis, “Spooked by petition, GOP leaders scramble to kill House immigration rebellion,” Washington Post:

“House Republican leaders made a full-court press Wednesday to forestall a GOP immigration rebellion that they fear could derail their legislative agenda and throw their effort to hold the majority in doubt.”

Scott Wong and Melanie Zanona, “GOP split on immigration is a crisis for Ryan’s team,” The Hill:

“The unfolding legislative battle is a nightmare for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his lieutenants, because it exposes a fervent intraparty split in the GOP and pits leadership against many of the politically vulnerable members that are key to saving the Republican majority this fall.”

Paul Donnelly, “Let the Bipartisan Majority Rule,” Wall Street Journal:

“Three vulnerable House Republicans—Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Will Hurd of Texas and Jeff Denham of California—have attracted attention by challenging their party’s leadership. They’re trying to get 218 signatures from colleagues of both parties to force a series of votes on immigration bills.”

Lindsey McPherson, “All of a Sudden, a Busy House Floor Schedule,” Roll Call:

“While lots of things happening in the House has been a frequent talking point of Ryan’s — even through periods of legislative slog — he is not overstating it now.”

Scott Wong, “Can Jim Jordan become top House Republican?” The Hill:

“The minority leader post requires only a simple majority of the Republican conference, which could mean as few as 90 to 95 votes if GOP ranks are decimated this fall. With roughly three-dozen members, the Freedom Caucus could be expected to supply about one-third of those votes for Jordan.”


Carl Hulse, “Republicans Escalate Bitter Fight Over Judicial Nominations,” New York Times:

“Now the Senate Judiciary Committee could send to the floor a disputed nominee from Oregon who is opposed by both of that state’s senators, a major break with Senate custom. According to the Congressional Research Service, it would be the first time since at least 1979 that a federal judge could be confirmed over the objections of both home-state senators. Democrats believe it could be the first time ever.”

Philip Bump, “Trump is starting to realize that Congress doesn’t like to stay in Washington very much,” Washington Post:

“It doesn’t take visitors to Washington very long to learn two things. First, that when Congress is in session, there’s often not that much going on on the floor of the House and Senate. And second, that Congress very often isn’t in session.”

Seung Min Kim, “Group of GOP senators calls for canceling August recess,” Washington Post:

“A growing group of Senate Republicans — eager to break the logjam on nominations and must-pass spending bills — is pressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to cancel the August recess later this year.”

Susan Ferrechio, “Mitch McConnell: No need for nuclear option on confirmations yet,” Washington Examiner:

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he does not yet see the need to use the “nuclear option” to override Democratic objections and impose a rule change to speed up confirmations of President Trump's nominees.”

Rachel Bovard, “The Senate’s laziness wouldn’t be accepted in any other job,” Washington Examiner:

“Just how lazy is the Senate? If you need just one metric to measure this, consider the following: The Senate has had just one amendment vote this entire year.”

Jennifer Shutt, “Appropriations Vs. Judges: Battle for Senate Floor Time Nears,” Roll Call:

“McConnell is expected to break away from judicial and executive branch nominations in June to debate fiscal 2019 appropriations bills. But how much time he’ll dedicate to restoring some semblance of “regular order” on spending is unclear.”

Alexander Bolton, “Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules,” The Hill:

“Frustrated with what he calls Democratic obstruction, President Trump is expected to press Senate Republicans during a lunch Tuesday to change the rules to speed up consideration of his nominees for vacant court seats and executive posts.” 

Budget and Appropriations

Molly E. Reynolds, “Why Trump’s move to rescind spending might find favor in the House, but not the Senate,” Brookings FixGov:

“Special congressional procedures can help facilitate legislating, but they can’t always overcome underlying disagreement among legislators.”

Susan Ferrechio, "Two-year budget cycle gains traction," Washington Examiner:

“Republicans and Democrats on a committee tasked with reforming the troubled congressional appropriations process are weighing a plan to turn the annual budgeting and spending process into an every-other-year event.”

James C. Capretta, "Three Ideas for Budget Process Reform," Real Clear Policy:

“Still, it might be possible for the joint committee to advance reforms that both parties can support if the proposed changes are seen as not tipping the scales toward a particular outcome. Here are three ideas that the committee should consider. They would all improve the current process and are all compatible with various perspectives on the budget.”

Jean Parvin Bordewich, "U.S. budget reform: The nudge Congress needs," Hewlett:

“Success, for me, would be one or two modest steps forward, the kind that shift attitudes and momentum on Capitol Hill and become lasting, bipartisan legislative reforms. Sweeping or one-party action, on the other hand, would be contested and fragile. “

Sam Berger and Pete Sepp, "Fixing the budget process, one step at a time," The Hill:

“We’re a progressive and a conservative who don’t agree on much. While we have genuine policy disagreements on most issues of substance, we do agree that the federal budget process is broken and the dysfunction is a disservice to our country – especially to Americans who don’t often have a voice in Washington.”

Congress, Miscellaneous

James Wallner, “An Impotent Congress,” Law and Liberty:

“But in reality, the problem underlying Congress’s present dysfunction is a lack of effort, not polarization.  That is, the Senate is mired in gridlock because its members are unwilling to expend the effort required to legislate successfully in a polarized environment.”

Sean McMinn, “House Experience Poised to Nose-Dive,” Roll Call:

“If this election year ushers in as big a wave as Democrats are hoping for, it could end not just with a new party in control of the House, but with a major brain drain in the chamber. Departing members take with them their institutional knowledge and experienced staff. The freshmen who replace them will not only be starting from scratch, but, like Tea Party members did in 2010, could arrive by virtue of an antagonistic attitude and may be reluctant to back established party leadership.”

Avery Anapol, “100 days after House passage, Gillibrand calls on Senate to act on sexual harassment reform,” The Hill:

“Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Thursday criticized her Senate colleagues for not acting on sexual harassment reform, noting 100 days had passed since the House passed landmark legislation to overhaul Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies.”

Harassment is ‘an open secret,’ former Hill staffers say,” PBS Newshour (video):

Sen. David Perdue and Jenny Beth Martin, “Make Congress work again,” Washington Examiner:

“Trump was elected to change the direction of our country and make America great again, and for the last year he has moved with a sense of urgency to get that done. Congress must finally work together to do the same.”

Eric Garcia, “Members Dismiss Need for ‘Taxpayer Funded Dorm’ in D.C.,” Roll Call:

“Thompson’s legislation would create a study to look at turning a vacant residence hall near the Capitol into affordable housing.”

Carl Levin, “Congress dangerously wields its oversight power in Russia probe,” The Hill:

“Denigrating and working to end the probe into the Russian involvement in our election before it concludes upends values we cherish of due process and equality under the law. Were the president and House Republicans to succeed in quashing the Mueller investigation, it would result in the impunity from the operation of law that the best dictators achieve.”





Trading gridlock for ... more gridlock

 Image source  here

Image source here

By Marian Currinder

So far, 54 members of Congress have announced they will not be seeking reelection in November. Most of those leaving are House members and the majority of those heading for doors are Republicans. While 21 of these members are running for higher office, the remaining 33 are retiring. Many of the Republicans who are retiring would have faced tough races in the fall—a factor that certainly contributed to their decisions to call it quits. But another factor looms large: congressional dysfunction.

Rep. Rodney Freylinghuysen (R-NJ), retiring chair of the House Appropriations Committee, recently described his job as “keeping the government open for business” and bemoaned the lack of predictability and stability. The fact that Freylinghuysen is looking forward to spending more time with his two granddaughters, despite both of them “throwing up on him” over the course of one recent weekend, tells you something about the current state of Congress.

Indeed, “years of deepening tribalism and dysfunction have taken their toll” on many departing members. In a recent Politico story, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said, “The Congress I came to was a very bipartisan, get-along place. People knew each other and tried to work together.” Not anymore. “What I will miss least is the current polarization and common refusal to listen to or respect others’ ideas,” said Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX).

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who retired May 12 rather than serve out the remainder of his term, said in his farewell speech on the House floor that the “fringe elements” on the far-right and far-left have paralyzed the government because of their inability to compromise. His colleague Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) seems to agree: he said he was leaving Congress because, “I like jobs where facts matter, I like jobs where fairness matters. I like jobs, frankly, where the process matters …”

Aside from the proverbial spending more time with their families, we don’t know what retiring members have planned – and we probably won’t. Despite a protocol for transparency in place since 2007, most House members do not bother filing notices of future employment negotiations with the House Ethics Committee. The system allows for them to decide whether there’s a conflict of interest that should be disclosed while they’re still serving and since 2007, only 17 members have filed such notices. Senate rules prohibit senators from negotiating for lobbying jobs until after their successor is elected.

As this year’s bumper crop of retirees bid good riddance to the Hill’s paralyzing dysfunction, it’s worth considering how some of them will undoubtedly find work perpetuating the very paralysis they profess to loathe – well after they’ve left Congress.

K Street, with its lucrative consulting and lobbying jobs, is a natural home for over 400 former members of Congress. This makes sense: after years of earning an annual salary of $174,000, many former members are eager to cash in on their experience and connections. About one-half of senators and one-third of House members who retired between 1976 and 2012 registered as lobbyists. But as political scientist Tim LaPira and others have noted, lobbying registration figures do not capture the large number of former members who work as consultants (“shadow lobbyists”) at firms that do business with the Hill.

Studies on members who go through the “revolving door” and become lobbyists once they leave the Hill, tend to focus on important questions like which members become lobbyists, who they represent, how much they get paid, and what disparities in representation mean for the public interest. A good deal of work has also looked at issues of transparency and how to better regulate revolving door lobbying.

Mostly missing from this discussion, however, is the recognition of a basic irony: The real outcome of most lobbying is the achievement of nothing. A successful lobbying campaign, in other words, is usually one that maintains the status quo. This means that many members who flee the Hill for K Street escape gridlock only to promote gridlock. Tim LaPira and Herschel Thomas's book on the revolving door notes this paradox of members and staff leaving a Congress that does nothing to then lobby a Congress that does nothing.

In their classic book on lobbying and policy change, Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojinacki, David Kimball, and Beth Leech, examine the lobbying efforts on behalf of 98 policy issues over multiple years and find that 60-percent of the time, nothing happens. This lack of action isn’t due to differences in group resources; rather, it can be explained by “an entrenched Washington system with a tremendous bias in favor of the status quo.” For many (deep-pocketed) corporations and trade associations, the less things change, the better. The $100 million lobbying campaign to kill anti-tobacco legislation in 1998 is a classic example.

While this “stalemating” approach to lobbying plays out across a broad swath of federal policy issues, business interests are by far the most invested players. Whether they’re protecting provisions in the tax code, preventing new regulations on their products and services, maintaining current emissions standards, or preserving specific federal programs, the pay-off of nothing changing is usually well worth the billions they spend each year.

Not only do business interests and trade associations spend the most on lobbying to prevent policy change, they also employ the most “revolving door” lobbyists and consultants. As Lee Drutman notes, former members can charge a lot for their lobbying services because the market will bear it. This means they usually wind up working for corporate clients who can afford to pay top dollar.

When it comes to former House members, lobbying firms rank seniority, being a party leader, being a committee chair, and being a member of a powerful committee as highly desirable. This is good news for this year’s retirees, which include at least eight committee chairs, a lot of seniority, and a Speaker of the House! As for former Senators, they’re all desirable by virtue of having served in the upper chamber. 

There are multiple parties to the gridlock that plagues Washington; whether that’s good or bad for members depends on which side of the revolving door they’re on. It’s a safe bet that some of the members retiring at the end of the 115th will find a home on K Street, and that many who now bemoan the “do-nothing” Congress will (ironically) be rewarded for promoting the status quo.

Marian Currinder is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute’s Governance Project and editor of the LegBranch.com blog.

How partisan are House committees and does it matter for lawmaking?

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By Josh M. Ryan

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the majority party controls the committees, which in turn control the legislative development process. Standing committees are largely responsible for gatekeeping legislation opposed by the majority party or its leadership, and for marking-up legislation before it is referred to the entire House for consideration. Indeed, much scholarly research on the House focuses on how the majority party uses the institutional rules to shut the minority out of the process, and whether the minority party has any substantial recourse to counter majority party power. Unlike their Senate counterpart, the House minority has less ability to obstruct or delay, and instead focuses on splitting the majority party. There is little evidence the minority is systematically successful at achieving even this, as the House leadership works hard to keep divisive proposals off the floor.

This perception of House majority party power overlooks a crucial point: if a bill is to be enacted, the Senate must also pass it and the president must sign it. Legislation that is truly intended to become law, as opposed to bills passed solely for political purposes, must receive bipartisan support in the House. Is there evidence that the preferences of the minority are incorporated at the committee stage, when members work to construct legislation that they intend to become law? To answer this question, I examined roll call vote data for House committees from the 104th through 114th congresses to determine which committees reported bills that had the greatest level of support from the minority party, and whether bills with more minority party support were more likely to become law.

Data on standing committee roll call votes was collected from committee reports, where individual members’ votes are published in accordance with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1972. I focused my attention on votes to report the legislation to the full House, as these votes reflect committee member preferences on the final version of the bill after the markup process. More minority party support indicates that a bill reported from the committee is more bipartisan.

I found significant variation across committees in the level of partisanship on votes to report bills. On average, Small Business, Veteran’s Affairs, and Agriculture were the most bipartisan committees, while Budget, House Administration, and Oversight were the least bipartisan (I excluded the Rules Committee from the analysis). On each of the bipartisan committees, on average, more than 50-percent of members of the minority party voted to report legislation. On the most partisan committees, minority party support to report was less than 20-percent. As one would expect, almost all members of the majority party vote to report legislation, so there is much less variation across committees on this dimension.

Josh Ryan table.jpg

Constituents and interest groups increasingly pay close attention to roll call votes taken on the floor and there is growing consensus in the scholarly literature that “messaging” or signaling bills play an important role in the modern Congress. Many bills reported out of committee or even voted on by the whole House are never intended to become law; these votes instead allow lawmakers to build up their voting records, and signal issue importance and  member positions to interested observers. To get a sense of how minority party viewpoints are taken into account during the markup process, I compared voting patterns on different types of bills: those that are reported from the committee but do not pass the House, those that pass the House, and those that become law.

Using the committee reporting votes data, I find that minority party support increases substantially at each subsequent lawmaking stage. Bills which are reported out of committee but do not receive a vote on the House floor receive support from only 26-percent of minority party committee members; bills which pass the House receive support from 47-percent of minority party committee members; and bills which become law receive support from more than 63-percent of minority party committee members. When controlling for other factors such as who sponsored the bill and party control of the Senate, the percentage of the House minority party voting to report the bill increases the likelihood a bill will make it through each of the lawmaking stages. In a last test, I also find that as the number of senators from the minority party increases, votes to report bills in the House become more bipartisan. This indicates that standing committees work together more when they need larger coalitions in the Senate.  

The data clearly demonstrate that on bills which are not intended to become law, the House majority party creates partisan legislation and does not solicit minority party support. But, for those bills on which the majority party is serious about enactment, the minority party seems to have a substantial say on the content of the legislation. This occurs because the Senate minority always has an important role to play, so members of the House likely craft legislation with an eye toward the other chamber. The results also suggest that if a committee wants to see its legislation become law, soliciting minority party support during the markup stage is a good place to start.

Josh M. Ryan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Utah State University. Dr. Ryan’s research focuses on American political institutions at both the state and federal levels and he has published research in journals such as Legislative Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Politics, and Political Science Research and Methods.

Pursuing earmarks at the expense of pursuing policy

 Image source:  Bloomberg

Image source: Bloomberg

By Scott M. Guenther and David M. Searle

In early January, President Trump floated the idea of bringing back earmarks to Congress, recalling before a group of House and Senate leaders, "there was a great friendliness when you had earmarks.” Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks have not paved the way for reinstating earmarks, but his comments echo a recent romanticizing of them.

Increasingly, earmarks are portrayed as the grease of the legislative machine that made lawmaking easier. With earmarks, so the logic goes, chamber leaders could trade money for legislators' pet projects in exchange for their votes. But any discussion of bringing back earmarks should be clear about the measurable consequences that also deserve our attention. 

An underappreciated consequence of earmarks is the cost in time and attention members spent directing their limited staff and resources to secure pork for their districts. As we show in a new paper (forthcoming in American Politics Research), success in securing earmarks often comes at the expense of attention to policy making.

Even after accounting for the most common explanations for why legislators bring home earmarks, we show that engagement and success in the policy-making process is among the strongest predictors for the share of earmarks a member brings home. Those who focus on drafting and pushing legislation bring home fewer earmarks. Thought of differently, members who really bring home the bacon end up skimping on their legislative responsibilities.

The exact opposite prediction – that legislators who win in one domain (earmarks) are successful in another (passing legislation) – is compelling, but inaccurate. Following the logic of those who romanticize the era of earmarks, members who have the most control over doling out earmarks, such as appropriators, should be more effective in moving their legislative initiatives forward. Our findings show the opposite to be true.  

How We Did Our Research

To test the idea that there is a tradeoff between successful earmarking and policymaking, we first needed to come up with effective ways to measure earmark and legislative effort. To measure earmark success, we took advantage of post-Jack Abramoff transparency laws requiring the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to publish a database of all awarded earmarks. The OMB data, which offers a complete picture of the number of earmarks each legislator sponsored, the amounts, and cosponsoring legislators, was used to calculate each legislator’s earmark share.

We measured the effort members exert in the policy process in a host of different ways: the number of  bills a member introduced that were reported from committee and passed on the floor, the frequency of member floor speeches, and a unique calculation of a legislator's connectedness using bill cosponsorships. Each of the measures have their advantages and disadvantages, but they all point in the same direction - the more activity we observed on this front,  the fewer earmark dollars a legislator brought home. Our last measure of policy-making effort, legislator connectedness through cosponsorships, is a key innovation that merits further explanation. 

An ongoing problem with studying legislator effectiveness is that a member’s ability to move  bills forward  is highly dependent on whether their party wants that bill (and legislator) to succeed. Unsurprisingly, some of the most "effective" legislators (based on bills passed) are majority party members facing tough elections in the fall. Most of their success has less to do with their effectiveness as vulnerable majority party incumbents, and more to do with their party wanting to get them reelected. 

Connectedness scores help get around the issue of parties picking the winners. Cosponsorship data helps measure all the effort legislators take to make their bills attractive early in the process. Without diving into the math, members receive higher connectedness scores when they are able to attract an ideologically broad coalition of sponsors, something previous research shows increases the viability of legislation. Although cosponsoring a bill requires virtually no effort on the part of a legislator, the ability to bring together a diverse and robust coalition is far from easy.

Highly connected legislators are more effective in pushing their bills forward; if their bills reach the floor, they generally receive wider support. However, there is a cost to this effort. The most active policy makers receive $12 million less in earmarks than their poorly connected colleagues. As the figure below shows, that differential success is a much bigger factor than typical explanations for why members receive earmarks - like seniority and electoral vulnerability.

Guenther-Searles marginal_effects.png

Limited resources force legislators to make trade-offs in how they allocate their efforts between legislative activities. Our work shows that pursuing earmarks comes at the expense of pursuing policy. Legislators choose to pursue different strategies in Washington for a variety of different reasons, but one thing should be clear. Removing the availability of earmarks forces legislators to focus on alternative opportunities. The challenge now is how to make legislating more attractive than other alternatives.

Scott M. Guenther is a postdoctoral research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and David M. Searle is a postdoctoral research scholar at Arizona State University.

ICYMI: Top reads on Congress

 Image source  here

Image source here

By Marian Currinder

Katherine Tully-McManus, “House Appropriators Vote to End Perk for Former Speakers,” Roll Call:

“The House Appropriations Committee advanced its $3.8 billion fiscal 2019 Legislative Branch spending bill to the floor Tuesday, after adopting an amendment to eliminate funding for a Capitol Hill office perk for former speakers.”

David Hawkings, “How Ryan and Pelosi Are Kicking Themselves to the Curb (Sort Of),” Roll Call:

“The House Appropriations Committee was planning to pare back the duration of the benefits to one year, but they voted to do away with them altogether Tuesday after both Ryan and Pelosi signaled that would be fine by them.”

Al Weaver, “David Perdue renews push for Senate to work through August recess,” Washington Examiner:

“Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., called Tuesday for the Senate to cancel the August recess so the chamber can remain in session to confirm nominees and pass legislation.”

Dara Lind, “Paul Ryan is facing an immigration challenge – from his own party’s moderates,” Vox:

“They need 219 signatures, which means they’d need to get not only every Democrat on board but also more than two dozen Republicans. But that might not be as much of a long shot as it seems. In March, the “queen of the hill” plan’s backers said they had 240 members in favor. The question now is whether enough of them are willing to not just say they support the plan but actually use some muscle to force Ryan to put it into action.”

Gregory Koger, “The underlying problem with Congress is deciding how to allocate their time,” Vox:

“Legislative chambers face a problem known as a tragedy of the commons: Individual demands on a common resource exceed the supply. Each chamber has developed a system to manage its chamber time that is subject to exploitation and needs to develop a new way to operate.”

Alex Gangitano, “New York Democrat Jokes He May Sleep in DC Homeless Shelter,” Roll Call:

“Rep. Brian Higgins said he can’t afford housing in Washington and joked that a homeless shelter could be an option for him.”

Noah Feldman, “Why Does the House Even Have a Chaplain? Tradition,” Bloomberg:

“If this arrangement were being set up today, it would almost certainly be held unconstitutional under contemporary judicial interpretation of the First Amendment.”

Jim Geraghty, “Ted Cruz’s Four Ways to Work Around a Filibuster,” National Review:

“Shortly after his speech to the NRA’s annual meeting Friday, Texas senator Ted Cruz took a few moments to speak to National Review about what Republicans can get done in the remainder of the year, and the options they have for working around the filibuster efforts of Senate Democrats.”

David Weigel, “Pelosi on Democratic candidates who denounce her: ‘Just win, baby,’” Washington Post:

“House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday morning that she wouldn’t object if the party’s swing-district candidates ran against her, as Republicans continued to make her the focus of millions of dollars in attack ads and messaging.”

Kate Ackley, “Few Retiring Lawmakers Disclose Plans to Lobby,” Roll Call:

“On the cusp of a potentially historic wave of congressional retirements, few public records offer clues about which lawmakers have entered negotiations for lobbying and other private-sector gigs.”

Jordan Butcher and Aaron Kushner, “No, term limits won’t #DrainTheSwamp. We did the research,” Washington Post:

“Each legislature’s unique characteristics and norms can influence its lawmakers’ careers. But what we find is that, for the most part, term limits don’t replace career politicians with citizen legislators. Rather, they complicate, but do not end, public servants’ political lives.”



How do congressional committee staff turnover rates compare to personal staff turnover?


By Casey Burgat

Congressional committees are typically thought of as bastions of policy expertise, where committed aides dive deep into the wonkery of narrow issue areas and make careers on Capitol Hill. After all, committees are fairly well insulated from the barrage of constituent  requests and electoral and messaging considerations that inundate the personal offices of Representatives and Senators.

But, do these features of committee life mean that committee aides are less likely to turnover than their colleagues in House and Senate personal offices?

Relying on disbursement data from the House of Representatives and Senate, cleaned and verified by LegiStorm, a new LegBranch.com analysis reveals which congressional committees experienced highest and lowest staff turnover rates in 2017. This snapshot analysis is part of a larger (forthcoming) project on congressional staff turnover that includes over 15 years worth of data. Previous LegBranch.com reports documented 2017 turnover rates for staffers in House and Senate personal offices.


What do the data show?

Turnover rates used in this analysis were constructed by dividing the number of staff that left a particular committee (either voluntarily or involuntarily) by the total number of staff the committee employed during the year. The median level of staff turnover in Senate committees for 2017 was 21.5 percent (compared to a median of 16.9 percent for individual Senators’ personal offices). On the House side, the median committee turnover was remarkably similar at 21.4 percent (compared to 18.5 percent for Representatives’ personal offices). Contrary to anecdotal expectations, turnover rates for committee aides, on average, were higher than for staff in personal offices in both chambers.

The Senate Appropriations and House Rules committees were the most stable committee offices in each chamber, with 7 percent and 8 percent of staff turning over in 2017. The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (50 percent) and the House Natural Resources Committee (31.8 percent) led their respective chambers with the highest proportion of staff turning over within the year.

Interestingly, House committees had more limited variation in staff turnover compared to the Senate with a standard deviation of 6.4 percent in the House and 10.3 percent in the Senate. In fact, no House committee experienced more than one-third of its staff turning over, while three Senate committees did (Rules and Administration, Judiciary, and Small Business). Again, this bucks the conventional wisdom that the Senate provides a more stable work environment, where aides stay longer because they are more likely to have an impact on policy outcomes. (Though, some argue and find that the longer tenures and wider networks that come with Senate service are more attractive to staffers seeking private sector employment---a fact that could help explain higher Senate committee turnover rates.)

The charts above, and corresponding tables below, show the committees in both chambers with the lowest and highest levels of staff turnover in 2017. Additionally, the tables show the number and percentages of staff that departed a committee, but remained working in Congress (i.e., left one committee and joined a member’s office or a different  committee). This measure provides a deeper look at intra-office environments in that it highlights the committees whose departing staff decided to continue working in Congress versus those who decided to leave the institution altogether.

House and Senate Committee Staff Turnover - Quick Tidbits

  • Of the 10 committees with the highest staff turnover rates, seven are Senate committees.

  • The House and Senate each had five committees in the top 10 most stable.

  • Senate Rules had the highest turnover rate in Congress at 50 percent; House Rules on the other hand, had the second-lowest rate in Congress at 8 percent.

  • Both chambers’ intelligence committees (House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence) and foreign policy committees (House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations) were among the most stable five committees within each chamber.

  • Eleven percent of House committee staffers departed one committee but found another job on the Hill; 14 percent of Senate aides did the same.

  • Of committee staffers who departed, 63 percent of them from each chamber found another job in Congress (yes, these numbers are exactly the same for the House and Senate). For comparison, 44 percent of House personal staffers found another job on the Hill after departing their member’s office, while 69 percent of Senate staffers stayed in Congress.

Tables 1 and 2 below depict the Senate and House committees with the highest and lowest staff turnover rates. Included in the tables are the number of staff employed and the number of departing aides, excluding interns, fellows, part-time, and temporary employees.

Table 1. 2017 Turnover Rates, Senate Committees

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Table 2. 2017 Turnover Rates, House Committees

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Notes on methodology:

  • Turnover rates are calculated by dividing the number of staff who departed a committee during 2017 by the number of staff who received payment from a specific committee at any point during the 2017 calendar year.

  • This analysis does not include interns, fellows, part-time, or temporary staffers.

  • This analysis makes no determination as to whether staffers departed a committee voluntarily or involuntarily. As such, conclusions as to whether turnover levels were the result of nefarious or unfriendly work conditions should be kept to a minimum.

Casey Burgat is a Governance Project fellow with the R Street Institute.


House Committee on Appropriations approves FY2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill


Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted 47-0 to approve the FY2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. The bill, which “provides annual funding for the offices of Members of the House of Representatives, the support agencies of Congress, security and police forces, services for visitors, and Capitol operations and maintenance,” appropriates $3.8 billion for House and joint operations -- $132 million above the FY2018 level. The committee report can be found here.

The bill’s increase over the FY2018 level drew the attention of Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who submitted a letter to House Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen prior to yesterday’s full committee vote. According to Mulvaney’s letter, “The President's 2019 Budget reflected the Administration's view that spending for the Legislative Branch should be restrained. As the Committee knows, the Budget includes an adjustment to the Legislative Branch's overall budget request to bring it in line with other non-Defense discretionary spending; in total, the Subcommittee bill is $327 million over the level assumed in the 2019 Budget.” The letter highlighted several accounts in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill that are not in line with the Administration’s approach.

Mulvaney’s letter drew criticism from some Congress experts, who took issue with the administration’s unusual attempt to influence the FY2019 (and future) Legislative Branch budgets.

Mulvaney’s letter, as it turns out, did not sway House appropriators. Only one amendment – a manager’s amendment that made technical and noncontroversial changes to the bill and report – was adopted by voice vote.

Committee consideration of the Legislative Branch bill begins at the 1:12 mark.

Daniel Schuman, who live tweeted from the hearing (detailed thread here), notes that the final bill included funding measures that will, among other things, increase the House’s budget, increase House member representational allowances, and require a study on staff pay and retention. 

The bill also provides for the Congressional Research Service to offer new member and staffer programming and directs CRS to report on science and technology resources available to members and to assess the need for a separate, nonpartisan entity to advise members on science and technology.

A number of these items were raised during the Legislative Branch Subcommittee’s FY2019 Member and Outside Witness hearing on April 17. LegBranch.com’s report on the hearing, including links to witness statements, can be found here.

The Legislative Branch Subcommittee's summary of their FY2019 bill contains the following highlights: 

  • Operations – The bill contains $1.2 billion to fund the operations of the House – an increase of $32 million above fiscal year 2018. This account provides funding for Members’ Representational Allowances (MRAs), leadership, committees, and officers of the House. This additional funding will provide for IT and cybersecurity enhancements; continue mandatory workplace rights training and the Wellness Program; and provide funding for 25 additional fellowship positions to the Wounded Warrior Program, bringing the total to 110.
  • Capitol Police – The bill funds the Capitol Police at $456.4 million, an increase of $29.9 million above the fiscal year 2018 enacted level. This will fund critical safety and enhanced security functions for all Members, staff, and visitors of the Capitol Complex, and maintain public access to the Capitol and its office buildings. Increased funding is included to address garage security and prescreening.
  • Office of Compliance (OOC) – $5.4 million is provided to ensure employees know and understand their rights and have access to a dispute resolution process that is fair and easy to navigate.
  • Architect of the Capitol (AoC) – The legislation provides $642 million for the AoC, which is $31.5 million above the fiscal year 2018 enacted level. The increase in funds is directed to essential health and safety improvements to aging or damaged facilities to protect Members, staff, and visitors. The legislation will allow the AoC to prioritize essential projects that promote the safety and health of those who visit and work in the Capitol Complex, and address deferred maintenance projects. This includes $62 million for the continuation of the restoration and renovation of the Cannon House Office Building, $32.7 million for the continuation of the Rayburn House Office Building Garage Rehabilitation project, and $10 million for the House Historic Buildings Revitalization Fund.
  • Library of Congress – The legislation provides $709.8 million for the Library of Congress, an increase of $40 million above the fiscal year 2018 enacted level. This increase will allow for enhancements to the public exhibits and visitor services, which will improve the Library’s ability to bring the nation’s collections and history out of the vaults into public spaces, and provide for information technology modernization within the Library, the Copyright Office, and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and additional full-time equivalents for Congressional Research Service to be more responsive to congressional requests.
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO) – The bill contains $579 million in funding for the GAO, same as the fiscal year 2018 enacted level, to continue GAO’s critical oversight work providing Congress with accurate, nonpartisan reporting of federal programs and tracking of how taxpayer dollars are spent. Funding will allow for 80 additional FTE for issues relating to cybersecurity, science and technology, Department of Defense programs, and health care costs.
  • Government Publishing Office (GPO) – The legislation includes $117 million for GPO, the same as the fiscal year 2018 enacted level.
  • Open World Leadership Center (OWLC) – The bill includes $5.6 million for the OWLC, the same as the fiscal year 2018 enacted level





A discretionary spending tale of two parties: James Madison rears his head

 Image source  here

Image source here

By John Haskell

A close examination of federal discretionary spending totals over the last 25 years reveals an unmistakable trend: under Democratic presidents discretionary spending increases were modest, and there were even decreases in some years; Republican presidents, by contrast, were more likely to preside over large discretionary spending increases usually in both defense and non-defense categories. These trends generally prevailed regardless of party control in Congress.

Counterintuitive?  The numbers don’t lie:

  • In absolute terms, discretionary spending during the Clinton years went up just over 20%, with nearly all of the increase in the last three years when the budget was in surplus (FY 1999-2001) – even though statutory caps were in place. Discretionary spending was nearly flat in absolute terms from FY 94-98, irrespective of party control of the Congress. In addition, actual outlays were sometimes about equal to or less than the president requested, even when Democrats controlled the Congress.
  • In absolute terms, discretionary spending increased about 60% from FY 2002 to FY 2008 when George W. Bush was president. More was spent than requested by the president every year, regardless of which party had control in Congress.
  • The Obama presidency featured an extremely high spending point in FY 2009, affected in significant measure by the Recovery Act enacted by the Democratic Congress and signed by the president, which was followed by an initially steep decline in spending in FY 2010, followed by small decreases until FY 2015. FY 2016 and FY 2017 saw increases but, still, overall discretionary spending was lower in absolute terms in FY 2017 than it had been in FY 2010.
  • President Trump signed into law the full year discretionary numbers for FY 2017, which showed a 5% increase, and appropriated FY 2018 spending represents another 6% increase. These increases were greater than in any of the previous seven years when Obama was president and were achieved by exceeding statutory caps.  

How can we explain that Republican presidents signed bills with greater discretionary spending increases than Democratic presidents, even when Congress was controlled by Republicans, as it was for four of Bush’s first six years, and for the first two years of Trump?  

One part of the explanation is based on specific circumstances affecting budget politics – the post-Cold War peace dividend and austerity politics in the Clinton years, the response to 9/11 in the Bush years, and a return to austerity politics in recent years as deficits ballooned post-recession and Recovery Act.  The austerity politics of the 1990s and 2010s were coupled with statutory discretionary spending caps (although those weren’t adhered to, as we have seen, when the politics changed).

But budget politics doesn’t seem sufficient to account for key aspects of the pattern. The issue we need to explore is that Democratic presidents barely got what they requested (and sometimes got less), even when their party controlled Congress. Furthermore, Republican presidents’ requests were frequently exceeded, even when their party controlled Congress.

A structural factor in our separated system gets us closer to a full explanation.

The modern day “peculiar institution” in this country is the U.S. Senate. By design, the system gives unusual leverage in the legislative process to just one senator, and certainly the minority party. If the minority party sticks together and has at least 41 cohesive members, both sides have to be reasonably satisfied for the bill to pass.

With a Republican president, Democrats in Congress, whether in the majority or not, are able to bargain effectively enough for the final tally of appropriations (usually an omnibus in recent years) to exceed what the GOP president wants. With a Democratic president, Republicans have the leverage, even with a congressional minority. For example, Clinton’s budget requests were barely if at all exceeded throughout his presidency, regardless of party control in Congress, and Obama’s request numbers, even though his requested increases in some years were modest, were not met.

The political climate in each of these situations was, as mentioned above, important. Nonetheless, the Trump years to date seem particularly illustrative – a Republican president who presented a lean budget to a Republican Congress during a time of huge deficits has signed spending bills with significant discretionary spending increases that exceeded existing caps.

With Republican presidents the dynamic seems to be that Democrats insist on more domestic discretionary spending roughly commensurate with the defense spending increases the president and his party want, and they are able to get those domestic increases with minority leverage in the Senate.

On the other side of the coin, Democratic presidents have presented leaner defense budgets to Republican Congresses that demand overall austerity to the point of a willingness to let the government shut down. It is notable that when the government was shut down for extended periods of time in 1995-96 and in 2013, while Republican Congresses didn’t get everything they wanted in the negotiations and ultimately conceded, the final numbers in both years showed actual spending below the president’s requested amount. Shutdown politics may have worked to the benefit of Democrats both times, but the long game was won by Republicans.

What’s the bigger lesson? In the spirit of James Carville: it’s James Madison, stupid. Don’t be fooled by the common focus on “presidential government.” Our separated system is more complicated than that and can lead to counterintuitive policy results, especially if one thinks that presidents are the main policy drivers. When it comes to spending, decision-making involves a complex interaction among both houses of Congress and the president.

One could argue recent history shows that if discretionary spending restraint is the goal, a Democratic president and a Republican Congress seem to provide the best result, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress (without 60 senators) second-best. You want to prime the pump? Elect a Republican president, who invariably will propose increased defense spending which, at the end of the day, will come with more domestic dollars thanks to Democratic leverage in the Senate.

John Haskell works at the Library of Congress, where he is the Director of the Kluge Center. All views expressed here are his own.