The decline of party capacity in the House

Image source: Politico

Image source: Politico

By Scott Meinke

In the last two decades, the House of Representatives has lost a great deal of institutional capacity.  Sources of expertise and spaces for deliberation and policy formulation are all in decline.  Most of these resources are nonpartisan or bipartisan—but Congress’ capacity does not exist entirely outside of its parties.  The House parties have provided internal mechanisms that have served party goals by complementing rather than replacing a robust committee system and other sources of institutional strength, and they could do so again.  There is no reason why strong political parties cannot coexist with a process of serious policy development and consensus building, a combination that would allow rank-and-file party members a greater investment in the party’s work.

The current House majority is highly centralized, governing from the top with little real involvement by the membership.  This condition is what we would expect from a cohesive majority in a highly polarized House, but it is increasingly in tension with a caucus that is deeply divided over policy and strategic decisions.  House majorities (and minorities, too) navigated this combination of strong partisanship and serious internal division more effectively when their organizations provided structure for member involvement.

The era that brought heightened capacity through staff growth, new nonpartisan offices (e.g., CBO), and the like also brought expanded party leadership organizations, with many House members taking a role in their parties’ decisions.  In the late 1970s and 1980s, majority Democrats built a broadly participatory whip organization and a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (DSPC) that involved a diverse set members.  At the same time, minority Republicans participated in their own whip system, Policy Committee, and Research Committee.  This strategy of inclusion, as Barbara Sinclair described the Democratic caucus’ efforts, helped to link members, committee leaders, and party leaders in the decision-making process.  It often also provided formal venues for communication between the House party, the White House, and party actors outside of government.

What ends did this system serve, and why was it a form of institutional capacity? 

These organizations were never particularly effective in developing long-term policy options, although Republicans sometimes turned to them for that purpose in the minority.  Much more important was their role in coordinating party policy positions and strategy.  Democrats used the DSPC and broad meetings of the whip organization to facilitate two-way communication between the rank-and-file and the leadership—members could voice concerns over policy and political consequences, and the leadership could explain and develop strategy.  Republicans used their organizations in similar ways, finding them particularly useful for arriving at policy compromises on conference-dividing issues like campaign finance and ethics reform.

These organizational mechanisms supported somewhat more centralized leadership at a time of rising partisanship, but they did so in ways that built rather than assuming rank-and-file support.  At a time when standing committee roles were more meaningful, this participatory system also provided established connections between key committee actors and party processes, striking a balance between these two key centers of House collective action.

What Happened to Party Organizations?

The expanded party capacity of the 1970s and 1980s did not withstand the conditions of the 1990s and 2000s in the House, at least not in its inclusive, participatory form.  Very high polarization fueled greater centralization, while close electoral competition inspired the parties to intensify their organizational focus on messaging.  Whip organizations grew more homogenous and their processes more locked-down, and the parties used their policy committees primarily to shape public electoral messages.  Increasing party centralization, the absence of party coordinating structures, and the decline of committees now leave the top majority party leadership developing vehicles for “legislating in the dark.”  The House GOP has tried to build support for leadership direction through full conference meetings, but these do not appear to be a successful alternative to more organized, inclusive participation earlier in the process.


The return to more powerful committee government is a worthwhile long-term goal.  At the same time, parties in the House will not soon retreat to a modest role as “important pieces of Capitol Hill furniture,” as David Mayhew described them four decades ago.  As long as the parties delegate significant authority to their leadership and contain real internal divisions—even if they are eventually joined by rejuvenated standing committees—they can improve the legislative process by renewing their own institutional capacity to develop broad support for policy and strategy. 

Scott Meinke (@ProfMeinke) is an associate professor of political science at Bucknell University.

Crippled Congress = expanded executive powers

Image source: POGO

Image source: POGO

By Casey Burgat

Congress is unquestionably polarized. Many of the nation’s most pressing issues are mired in gridlock. These facets of our politics are understood, but the consequences of our current circumstances rarely receive the attention they clearly warrant.

Indiana University political scientists Edward Carmines and Matthew Fowler address why these consequences matter in their recently published paper, “The Temptation of Executive Authority.” The authors thoroughly detail a specific outcome of our current political environment that many on the congressional capacity bandwagon have warned of for years: when Congress doesn’t have the capacity to legislate, the president will.

Citing a perfect storm of increased polarization, contentious elections for congressional majorities and the White House, and regular instances of divided government, the authors argue that recent presidents of both parties have taken advantage of the inability and/or unwillingness of Congress to craft and pass legislation and have done so themselves. These reinforcing influences “have led to the expansion of executive authority at the expense of a diminished legislature.” In short, the mantra of three co-equal branches of government is becoming less accurate as the executive gains strength.

According to Carmines and Fowler, “Congress, in a nutshell, no longer seems up to the challenge of taking effective action to deal with the major problems facing the country.” The authors back up their argument with five indicators of decreased legislative productivity, including fewer bills passed by Congress, the declining percentage of bills going to conference, and even the increase in cloture votes taken to end debate on pending bills. By all measures, Congress’ capacity to legislate has taken a serious hit, giving the president an opportunity to take up the slack.

We know Congress has cut its own resources, from technology, to support agency expertise, to staffing resources within its own offices. But, let’s remember an essential point: Congress can fix this. In fact, Congress can act alone to fix this.

In each of the instances where Carmines and Fowler highlight presidents making use of, and even expanding on, their executive authority, they often couch the action as a response to congressional inaction. For example, they write presidents have chosen to use executive authorities because they faced a “recalcitrant and uncooperative Congress,” or a Congress that “has become ideologically bifurcated and unwilling to compromise,” or a Congress that “lacks the capacity and perhaps the will to play a coequal role.”

And that’s the point. The policy vacuums filled by executive actions only exist because Congress creates them.

When we talk about legislative capacity we should be aware of the likelihood that the current environment exists because enough members of Congress want it to exist. Legislating is hard; there are uncertain outcomes, unintended consequences, and often politically dangerous consequences given that bipartisan compromise is almost always necessary for bills to be signed into law. Many members have made the calculation that it is politically advantageous to let the president lead.

Congress can curb the use of executive action by taking action themselves, but they have to want to. Though Congress can and should increase their own institutional capacity via hiring more, and better compensating staff, the will to take back legislative superiority must come first. As R Street Governance Senior Fellow James Wallner argues, and as you will read in much of his upcoming work, active congressional participation is best thought of as “the politics of effort.” And as Carmines and Fowler conclude, the executive, in the absence of effort from the legislature, will not hesitate to take and expand on his authorities to implement his policy preferences.

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

ICYMI: Top reads on Congress

Image Source: Daily Beast

Image Source: Daily Beast

By Marian Currinder

Budget, Appropriations, Earmarks

David Hawkings, “When the Deal Precedes the Bid, Time to Change the Rules?Roll Call:

“But something largely overlooked got tacked on to that bipartisan agreement on a spending splurge for both guns and butter, signed by the same President Donald Trump who then called for deep curbs in domestic programs and the social safety net. It was a commitment by all the players to get their budgetary story straight.”

Linda J. Bilmes, “Congress’ budget dysfunction is more than 4 decades in the making,” The Conversation:

“The present dysfunction in the congressional budget process can be traced back to the budget reforms of 1974 when Congress passed the sweeping Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. The law was the first fundamental change in national budgeting since 1921 and was driven by Congress’ effort to reassert its constitutional “power of the purse” in the aftermath of Watergate. The act strengthened the role of Congress in the budget process and established the House and Senate Budget committees to determine the size and allocation of the annual budget pie.”

Susan Ferrechio, “Can the ‘Supercommittee II’ fix Congress’ dysfunction?” Washington Examiner:

“Lawmakers say they want to examine the problem and come up with a solution by the end of this year “on how we can fix this broken process between the House and the Senate once and for all on budget and appropriations,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., said.”

Molly E. Reynolds, “Lessons learned from Congress’s recent budget deal,” Brookings:

“Republicans remain divided over the content of immigration policy, and Democrats are generally united in favor of a measure addressing DREAMers. Where Democrats differ internally, however, is on how much weight to put that on position. In a party where there are competing demands being placed on leaders by diverse groups within the caucus, difficult tradeoffs must be made. Last week’s brought us a budget deal. Who knows what this week’s will bring?”

Kurt Couchman, “Congress can and should end government shutdowns for good,” Washington Examiner:

“Ending the counterproductive shutdown dance at the federal level would improve policy, improve the process, and improve congressional politics. As Congress moves to finalize spending for a fiscal year that is nearly halfway over, it’s clear that authorizing automatic continuing resolutions is the smart way forward.”

Elaine S. Povich, “Earmarks May Make a Comeback in Congress. In Some States, They Never Went Away,” Governing:

“The U.S. Congress placed a moratorium on the use of federal earmarks in 2011, hoping to curb wasteful spending. But in California and some other states, they never went away. Many state leaders argue that inserting money for local projects into broader bills isn’t wasteful — it’s an indispensable tool for winning votes. They say earmarks promote bipartisanship and break gridlock.”


Congressional Productivity/Capacity

Philip Wallach, "Congress: Where Politics Go to Die," The American Interest:

"Unfortunately, most members of Congress justly feel they are given no real part in these decisions today. Fewer bills pass; those that do are assiduously shielded from any amendments; and nearly all of the development of crucial omnibuses (like the budget deal just passed) happens in leadership offices, with the work of committees mostly unceremoniously ignored. Normal members find that their job description as legislators is reduced to showing up to cast votes when the leadership instructs—and those are usually carefully stage-managed votes, with little suspense about the outcome."

Michael Thorning, “Little Debate or Deliberation in Congress in 2017,” Bipartisan Policy Center:

“The first year of the 115th Congress mostly saw breakdowns in the legislative process and Congress’s ability to function. Neither chamber gave its members many opportunities to offer amendments to legislation. The Senate was not gridlocked by many attempts to filibuster legislation, but the cause seems to be more that the Senate considered few controversial bills that could be filibustered rather than any trend away from reliance on the filibuster. This may also explain the low utilization of conference committees to resolve differences between the chambers. Congress’s ability to carry out its most basic functions, the budget and appropriations processes, seem to have completely atrophied, and could be considered failures. Though the Senate spent ample time working in Washington, the House continued to lag behind in this area. Halfway through the 115th Congress, there is much room left for improvement.”

OpenGovFoundation, “From Voicemails to Votes,” OpenGov Foundation:

“During the late summer of 2017, The OpenGov Foundation undertook a first-of-its-kind effort to apply a human-centered design/user research approach to investigate the systems, tools, constraints, and human drivers that fuel congressional constituent correspondence processes. This report holds the findings of our work.”

Jan Leighley and Jennifer Oser, “Members of Congress respond to more than money – sometimes,” The Conversation:

“In any case, the founders’ faith in the power of citizen activism has been borne out, at least partially. Elected officials do respond to citizens who do more than vote — and they also respond to those activists in a way that might well counter the advantages of the wealthy in American politics.”

Dan Glickman, “Some members of Congress seem to have forgotten their oath,” CNN:

“Politicians, love them or hate them, are largely patriots whose sworn duty it is to uphold the Constitution, and it is their sacred duty to protect the nation. Thankfully, the Senate Intelligence Committee leadership seems to understand this, but the House Intelligence Committee needs help, so here's a suggestion. Speaker Paul Ryan should take off his "leader of the Republican Party hat" on intelligence oversight, and put on his "leader of the House hat," sit down with the House Intelligence Committee and get the members to act like adults.”

Doug Weber, “The effect of congressional retirements,” Open Secrets:

“Better comparisons for the current Congress are the 103rd and 110th Congresses. In both cases, one party had a much higher number of retirements than the other. In both cases, the party with more retirements suffered significant losses in the election. 1994, of course, saw Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 40 years. 2008 saw the Democrats increase their control of the House as Barack Obama was elected President.”

Thomas O. McGarity, “The Congressional Review Act: A Damage Assessment,” American Prospect:

“President Donald Trump has boasted that he had signed far more bills during his first months in office than many of his predecessors. Like many of his boasts, this one was misleading. Apart from purely ceremonial bills, the vast majority of bills enacted during his first six months in office stemmed from the Congressional Review Act of 1996 (CRA).”



James Wallner, “What is the Purpose of the Senate?” Law and Liberty:

“Popular frustration with the Senate is nothing new. And calls to change its rules are an evergreen feature of our politics. In a sense, this frustration is something all Americans have in common. It transcends ideology and partisan affiliation. But underpinning this widespread agreement is a shift in the way Democrats and Republicans understand the Senate’s role in our political system. Acknowledging the nature of this shift highlights the real source of the Senate’s present dysfunction.”

Gregory Koger, "The immigration "debate" shows why the Senate flails," Vox:

"This is the background for the free-for-all debate that the Senate is supposed to be having this week, in which senators offer amendments to an empty bill. As of Wednesday at noon, this wild, raucous deliberation has yielded exactly zero votes on amendments. The reasons are a great illustration of what is wrong with the Senate."

Carl Hulse, “No Room for Debate: Senate Floor Fight Over Immigration Is a Bust So Far,” New York Times:

“In terms of rip-roaring debates, it certainly hasn’t rivaled Calhoun versus Webster. It is definitely not in the pantheon of Lincoln with Douglas. In fact, it really hasn’t even measured up to Biden meets Palin.”

James Wallner, "Filibuster change won't fix flawed appropriations process," The Hill:

"Given these concerns, Republicans should reject calls to eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed to appropriations bills. Fixing the appropriations process does not depend on it. And elimination poses greater issues for the Senate."

Jeff Bell and Emmett McGroarty, “Against the Filibuster,” Weekly Standard:

“Republican politicians face a binary choice: They can either stand up for constitutional principles, or they can preserve the status quo and maintain the arcane Senate filibuster rules. At its core, this is a showdown between politicians who are high-energy and courageous versus those who are low-energy and timid.”


House/Freedom Caucus

Jonathan Bernstein, “House Freedom Caucus Is On the Warpath Again,” Bloomberg:

“They're already upset with Ryan because of the recently passed agreement on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, along with raising the debt limit and various other measures. The truth, however, is that the conservative radicals are the ones responsible for that bill. Democrats only have leverage to negotiate a fairly good deal because Ryan's Republican conference was split, with Ryan knowing he would never have the radicals' votes on anything that could even get a simple majority in the Senate.”

Lindsey McPherson, “Freedom Caucus Fires Fresh Warning Shots to Ryan on Immigration ‘Consequences,’” Roll Call:

“Meadows did not elaborate on what those consequences would be, but some of his caucus members have been clear for months that Ryan striking a bad deal on immigration would potentially be a deathly blow to his speakership.” 

How women work harder to stay in Congress

Image source: Politico

Image source: Politico

By Jeffrey Lazarus

Almost ten years ago, my colleague Amy Steigerwalt and I were writing on congressional earmarks when we noticed an interesting trend: in the years we examined, four of the five most prolific earmarkers in the Senate were women. This finding was quite a surprise, since there were only 13 women in the Senate at the time. We decided to do some more investigating, and sure enough, as a group, female members of Congress secured more money for their states and districts than the men did. 

We then began to investigate whether male and female members of Congress interact with constituents differently from one another in other areas as well. We find that across a range of more than a dozen different interactions – including pork barrel spending, trips to the district, placing staff in the district, and volume of franked mail – as a group women simply do all of them more. The overall message was clear: female members are more closely engaged with their constituents than males are, at virtually every level. 

The more we thought about this finding, the more it made sense. After all, as shown by a host of previous studies, female candidates face a number of obstacles when running for office that men do not. Women do not receive as much media attention, and the media attention they do get is less substantive in nature. Women face better-funded and higher-quality opponents than men. They face gender stereotypes held by voters and other political actors that men do not have to worry about. And even when women overcome these obstacles and get elected, there are a number of socialization factors which combine to induce many female office holders to believe – consciously or unconsciously – that their reelection campaign will be tougher than average.

We thus developed the concept of “gendered vulnerability:” in both perception and reality, female officeholders are more vulnerable to losing reelection than men. The patterns that Amy and I discovered – increased pork barrel spending, extra visits to the district, all of it – is a response to the fact that women have to, or at the very least, believe they have to, work harder to stay in office than men do. Women’s extra attention to constituents is the form that additional work takes.

Gendered vulnerability also has consequences that are more substantively important. With respect to policy, female members hew closer than males to what their constituents want. Women are more likely to write and introduce bills in the policy areas their voters most care about; and they are also more likely to sit on committees reflecting these district concerns and needs. Perhaps most important, when members of Congress vote on bills and other matters, women stick closer to what their constituents want than men do. Amy and I also find that this increased substantive representation exists across the panoply of issues areas Congress considers and is not just limited to “women’s issues.” In other words, the result of gendered vulnerability is that female members better substantively represent all of their constituents’ interests.

Does this make women better overall representatives than men? In some ways yes, and in other ways no.  If you are a voter, having your member pay more attention to you – write more letters, visit more often, etc., -- is always a good thing. And women’s tendency to reflect their voters’ policy preferences certainly makes them better delegates. But there are potential costs: Some female members spend so much time working on their voters’ issues that they have a hard time branching out and working on things they might care more about. Spending so much time focused on placating voters might also prevent women from achieving goals situated within Congress, such as passing broad national legislation, or moving up the leadership ladder. And even voters might not always be pleased – what if voters clamor for a policy or action which their member knows in the long run won’t turn out well? Female Congress members will have a harder time resisting their voters’ preferences here, too. 

Our research thus both answers some important questions and raises others. First and foremost, we find evidence that gender differences exist across the multitude of activities members of Congress engage in: female members attend more to constituent demands and better represent their constituents’ interests. Due to their more treacherous reelection landscape, women’s gendered vulnerability results in them prioritizing their constituents in a manner that is noticeably distinct from their male counterparts. However, our research raises important questions about what we want out of our representatives (do we send them to Washington to act as delegates or trustees?) as well as the policy implications of female members’ constituent-skewed allocation of their time. Even as women increasingly run and win elected offices, the perception of gendered vulnerability across female legislators, old and young, in safe and unsafe seats, remains strong and suggests we will have to continue to grapple with both the benefits and costs for years to come.

Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.  Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office will be available from Michigan University Press on March 4, 2018.

The knowledge culture of Congress

Image Source: LOC

Image Source: LOC

By Colleen J. Shogan

The swirl of commentary and serious thought about “fake news” and “the death of expertise” begs a larger question about American political culture and its penchant for anti-intellectualism. Over fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote his Pulitzer prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and the recent election has encouraged its reconsideration.

Understanding how pervasive, cyclical strains of political culture, such as anti-intellectualism, affect the function of political institutions is critically valuable, especially during times of upheaval and change. So what about the knowledge culture of Congress?  Has the war on expertise found its way to Capitol Hill?

To fulfill many requirements of the job, Members of Congress and staff need access to facts, statistics, and digestible explanations describing complex empirical relationships and governmental processes. In my experience, more congressional time is spent on technical, procedural, administrative, and representative issues than purely partisan concerns. This type of work cannot be ignored. Constituents write emails asking tough questions; staff must consult research before writing legislative outlines; and press secretaries have to “get smart” on issues in short order.

While Congress is a representative body and not immune to the political culture that surrounds it, Nelson Polsby reminds us that political institutions are constrained, well-bounded and influenced by norms, requirements, expectations, and rules. Culture matters, but internal dynamics create powerful structural incentives for various behaviors, as my former colleague explained recently.

Headlines about Congress, exacerbated by social media, are biased toward the predominance of ideological conflict on the Hill. There’s no denying its existence and influence. But there’s also another story to tell, perhaps a narrative that won’t drive Twitter traffic. Considerable resources in a Member office are devoted daily to the sometimes arcane, complex, knowledge-driven work required by both the representative and policymaking functions.  For example, understanding how the Army Corps works isn’t partisan, but it does require accurate information and expertise that can elucidate intricate processes and bureaucratic functions.

There is an expectation within the institution that Members of Congress and their staffs engage in this type of knowledge-seeking behavior. Variations within both chambers certainly exist, but no elected representative wants to “get it wrong.” That’s why facilitating access to authoritative information, analysis, and expertise on Capitol Hill is imperative. Furthermore, an external demand also exists. Constituents seek answers and explanations, and a nationally informed legislature exists, in part, to fulfill such requests.

Congress is not an anti-knowledge institution. Members don’t need lectures or lengthy missives because their scarcest resource, by far, is time. Instead, they want practical, meaningful, interactive discussions that enable them to perform their jobs as elected representatives of large, often diverse constituencies. In our current political climate, it may make sense for politicians to perpetuate the “death of expertise” cultural mantra. But some of us know better, and take quiet solace in the fact that the pursuit of knowledge is far from moribund on Capitol Hill.  

Colleen J. Shogan (@cshogan276) is a political scientist at the Library of Congress. She writes both fiction and non-fiction books about American politics and teaches a graduate seminar on American Political Development at Georgetown. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Library of Congress.

The struggle between objectivity vs. neutrality continues at the Congressional Research Service

CRS Mazanec 02-13-2018.png

By Kevin R. Kosar

Recently, leadership of the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress were presented with a memorandum. It expressed concern that the agencies' analysts, attorneys, and reference experts were being muzzled a bit. 

"We are concerned that CRS risks falling short of its mission if it holds back the independent analysis that Congress has directed us to provide. Sparking our concern, CRS has appeared to avoid reaching conclusions in some topic areas with high potential for political controversy. In some such topic areas, CRS operates as a neutral compiler of facts and opinions, with little of the expert analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of their credibility that Congress requires. CRS also seems to have avoided a few topics or facets of topics almost entirely. Yet these risk-avoidant strategies, while certainly understandable, could in fact increase other risks such as under-utilizing CRS’s valuable personnel; contributing to polarization; and, ironically, inviting a perception of partisan bias. Perhaps worse, given the mission of CRS, is the risk of a slow slide into irrelevance."

(Disclosure: I was shown the memorandum and signed it.)

This debate is not a new one at the agency. I first saw it erupt back in 2004, when nationally renown senior specialist Louis Fisher was taken to task for expressing his concerns about executive branch encroachments on legislative branch authorities. CRS leadership produced a memorandum directing analysts to produce work that gave the appearance of neutrality, as opposed to objectivity. The former standard amounts to saying "On the one hand X, on the other hand Y." The latter standard says, "Here are what the facts and analysis indicate."

Plainly, this dispute within CRS continues. Analysts want to be respected experts who can convey objective analysis to Congress while agency managers fear cuts to the agency's budget and people losing their jobs. Yet as the January 12, 2018 memorandum makes plain, the stakes are no mere tempest in a Beltway teapot:

"As you know, the current climate of 'alternative facts,' 'fake news,' conspiracy theories, and declining trust in a common reality poses problems for the United States’ political system. While technological and social trends increase the need for information literacy, people across the political spectrum do not know where to turn for reliable information. Many end up in polarized 'bubbles.' These trends threaten democracy, in part by eliminating shared factual grounds on which people and their legislators can debate, compromise, and seek consensus. In this climate, CRS’s mission has never been more vital." 


Legislative support agencies occupy a particularly difficult position these days. The agencies, which include the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, Library of Congress Law Library, and CRS, were established to add knowledge to the political process. Make Congress smarter -- who could object to that?

As it turns out, plenty of folks can. Knowledge can be threatening. Facts can undermine arguments being made for or against a policy. It is a problem as old as politics. Remember what happened to Socrates when he employed reason to question Athenian conceptions of justice?

The problem of knowledge in politics becomes more acute in the era of hyper-partisanism. Anything one writes might be used by one faction or another as a club to pound the other. Politicians tend to feel besieged and want to control the narrative. So they sometimes lash out at anyone who writes or says anything to contradict that narrative. Last year some members of Congress advocated outsourcing the Congressional Budget Office's budget scoring duties to private sector think-tanks. Why? Because they were upset about how the CBO tallied an Obamacare repeal bill. Whether this particular score was right or wrong can be debated, but gutting a legislative support agency over a single score is inarguably a gross overreaction.

Exacerbating the challenge further are the perceived stakes: namely, partisan control of Congress. Party control of our national legislature has switched back and forth rapidly since the early 1990s. We have not seen swings like this since the post-Civil War period, notes political scientist Frances Lee. Democrats are out, Republicans are in, then the GOP is out, and later back again. Now the focus is on whether Democrats will reclaim control of Congress after November 2018. One effect of this peculiar state of politics is that each party tends to view nearly everything through the prism of the next election. Which means legislative support agencies' work too often gets viewed less for its intrinsic value and more as a bother or even a threat. 


All legislative support agencies feel the threat of legislative retribution. In the 1990s, GAO had its budget cut 25 percent. The Office of Technology Assessment was zeroed out by Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, and its staff let go. By virtue of running Congress' think-tank, CRS leaders feel especially vulnerable. CRS analysts and reference specialists interact with congressional staff every day. In FY2016, there were:

“more than 62,000 requests for custom analysis and research. The Service hosted more than 9,200 congressional participants at seminars, briefings, and training; published more than 3,500 new or updated reports; summarized more than 6,300 bills; and maintained nearly 10,000 products on its website for Congress,, which received over 1.7 million views. Overall, CRS provided confidential, custom services to 100% of Member and standing committee offices.”

When the Internet began becoming ubiquitous two decades ago, CRS reports went from being hard copies that were read only by a small number of folks on the Hill to the subject of stories in the New York Times. The arrival of the World Wide Web, smartphones, and the bitterly contentious environment on the Hill, as I described elsewhere, slammed CRS. The once insular agency found its staff being trashed by legislators, media, and bloggers. All for doing their jobs. It was never enough for external critics to write, "CRS's analysis is fair but falls short for the following reasons." Instead they couched their critiques in terms of CRS being biased or in the bag of one party or the other.

Agency management struggled to respond to this development, which meant anything the agency wrote or said risked setting off a political firestorm. Over the past two decades, CRS leadership has confronted the hyper-partisan, Internet-connected world mostly by trying to hide staff from it. Once upon a time CRS's experts regularly appeared on panels at academic conferences, wrote for journals and other public media, and spent long stretches working as detailees in the House or Senate. These days, such activities occur much less frequently. As management sees it, the less visible staff are, the less vulnerable the agency is.

While neutrality and invisibility might appear to be rational strategies from the perspective of the agencies' higher-ups, it is soul-crushing to staff. Nowadays, CRS's analysts feel pressured to frame everything as "some say this, and some say that" and to shrug in the face of legislators and staff when asked, "What do you think?" (Congressional staff hate such unresponsiveness, by the way.) Being an expert means reaching conclusions. It also means being able to write freely (but responsibly) and follow the facts and data where they lead. For these reasons, CRS has hemorrhaged talent, which is bad for the agency and bad for Congress.


There are no easy answer to this lamentable state of affairs. The Internet is not going away, and hyper-partisanism shows no signs of flagging. Hostility to facts and expert opinion is an ineradicable fact of life. Things could improve if both legislators and CRS management stepped back and took deep breath.

The next Congress would do well to adopt an internal rule that legislators and staff will not publicly berate legislative support agencies or accuse them of being biased. Certainly, civil servants can get things less than 100 percent correct. But so can legislators. That they do explains why CRS and other agencies exist to begin with. Hence, if a legislator thinks a CRS report is objectionable, then he or she should put out a press release politely taking issue with the analysis' framing or methodology, and leave it at that. If the critique is sound, sympathetic media will report it and the agency itself will take note and do better next time. This is not rocket science, it is civility. Besides, if a legislator's case is so weak that they fear a CRS analysis might sink it, well, they probably should rethink what they're advocating.

CRS leadership, for its part, needs to learn to better read the signals coming from Capitol Hill. If a staffer calls to grouse about a report, there's no reason to pull a fire alarm. Even during the budget slashing years of Speaker Gingrich, CRS' budget was never axed. Indeed, so long as agency leadership maintains friendly relationships and an open line of communication with its authorizing committees and appropriators, there is no way one cranky legislator (or even a bunch of them) is going to hurt the agency. CRS leadership needs to be confident on this count, and to mill that confidence into a clear message to CRS staff: "We have your back." Analysts and reference experts at CRS need to believe that, lest they continue to self-censor themselves. Finally, CRS management also should recognize that its reputation on Capitol Hill very much depends on the agency being seen as useful and objective. That means CRS experts need to be permitted to write clearly and to share their objective assessments--even if they are not neutral.

Kevin R. Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute. He worked for the Congressional Research Service from 2003 to 2014, and co-directs the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group.

The budget process is obviously broken. Or is it?

Image Source: CFRB

Image Source: CFRB

By Joshua C. Huder

Congress passed a $300 billion spending deal, so clearly the budget process is broken … or is it? The Senate leaders who negotiated the deal clearly think it is. The deal requires lawmakers to establish a “Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform” for the purpose of discussing potential structural and procedural changes to make the process functional again. Don’t hold your breath in anticipation for this reason: the budget process is not the problem.

Budget and appropriations process dysfunction needs to be put in perspective. The process really went off the rails in 2010; prior to then, the process was still pretty much working and Congress still routinely adopted a budget resolution. In FY2010, Congress passed half of the individual appropriations bills. In FY2006, Congress passed 11 of the 12 individual bills. Throughout the 2000s, it was common for Congress to pass anywhere between four and eight appropriations bills; hardly a great statistic, but far from the colossal failure that’s marked the last 10 years.

The 2010s, on the other hand, has essentially been a failed decade.  Congress adopted only three budget resolutions, none of which were relevant to discretionary spending levels for the fiscal years they passed.  Only seven individual appropriations bills, out of a possible 96, were passed through the Congress. Omnibus bills and continuing resolutions are routine spending process now. It is easily the worst decade of budget and appropriations management since the process was established in 1974.

But is the budget process the real issue? The peak-dysfunction of the last decade is not attributable to the budget process for a couple of reasons.

First, Congress is not using the budget process to budget. Congress reformed (temporarily) the budget process in 2011 when it passed the Budget Control Act (BCA). The BCA set the topline discretionary number (known as the 302(a) number in a budget resolution) until FY2021. Further, the BCA divides that number between defense and nondefense, giving defense funding its topline number for 10 years (known as its 302(b) number), and setting aside a chunk of money to be distributed among the other agencies. This is a budget process, one that Congress instituted for 10 fiscal years.

This BCA has had massive consequences. First, it made the actual process – adoption of a concurrent resolution and appropriations bills under the cap specified in that resolution – entirely moot. Discretionary spending numbers are already in place until FY2021. Nearly every lawmaker in Congress hates those numbers. So every two years we do another round of budgeting to amend the existing numbers. But amending the BCA is a legislative process, not a budgeting process.

Second, the BCA gives the minority enormous influence on what is normally a majority-driven process. Because BCA is a law and not a budget resolution, it requires 60 Senate votes to amend rather than the simple majority that normally governs the budget process. The procedural result is that the minority has much greater budgeting input than normal. This is one reason that Democrats have been so successful as a minority, particularly in recent years. The minority enjoys the benefits of lawmaking without the same pitfalls for failure.

We lament the breakdown of the budget process but completely overlook that it has been replaced with a bipartisan process in a period of historical polarization. Of course it’s destined to fail. The easiest way to smooth the process would be to repeal the BCA, which is near politically impossible given the leverage it offers the minority.

The real problem is these processes do nothing to change the broader political and procedural trends contributing to the breakdown. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) shut down the government this morning because he was not allowed to offer an amendment. Partisan amendments, aimed not at constructive debate but political messaging, have broken down the appropriations process in both chambers. Leaders wanting to shelter vulnerable members from difficult votes shut down the amending processes on appropriations bills in 2009 and 2016. A new budgeting process will not make partisanship go away.

We cannot prevent partisan politics; we can only allow them to play out. Reforms designed to make the budget process more functional are not even a helpful endeavor at this point simply because there are other procedural forces bottling up debate and deliberation in the chambers.

Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. You can find him on Twitter @joshhuder.