The Congressional Tendency to Cannibalize Itself

Blogpost by Adam Chan, R Street Institute

Why is Congress loath to increase its staff, and sometimes eager to cut it? 

Professors Anthony J. Madonna and Ian Ostrander take up this question in their recent conference paper, sardonically titled, “A Congress of Cannibals: The Evolution of Professional Staff in Congress.”

The authors analyze history and data in an attempt to determine why, despite a one-third growth in the U.S. population and seven-fold increases in government spending since 1979, the number of committee staff, support staff and personal staff devoted to policy have fallen and staff wages have been cut. The staffing data, as published previously on LegBranch.com (here and here), are indisputable. (Both chambers’ leaders, it is worth mentioning, have increased their staffing.)

Madonna and Ostrander offer an account of the history of congressional debates over staff number and expenditure, from the slow and steady increases since the 1840’s to the recent decline. Covering the reform bills of 1893, 1918, 1939, 1946 and 1970, among others, they note certain patterns.

One thing they discern is that electoral calculations affect the congressional willingness to staff itself. The authors note Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) in 1942 delivered a speech titled, “What is Wrong With Congress?”  Dirksen declared, “The thing that is wrong with Congress isfear;  notfearoflobbies,  notfearofcriticism,  notfearofthedeadcatsthatarethrownat useversooften;  itisafearthatIobservedyearsagoofdoingsomethingforourselvesasaninstitution.” Some congressmen also have claimed that more staff would lead to more bills being introduced, a dubious proposition.

More recent debates over congressional staff, such as those Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the Affordable Care Act, reveal that members see value in positioning themselves as favoring less staff.  Cutting these “bureaucrats” proves one is not an entrenched DC fat cat. Staffers, for their part, have few if any lobbyists willing to go to the mat for them. The authors point to the congressional support for the 2013 Vitter amendment ---which would have eliminated the subsidies to assist congressional staff to purchase health insurance on ACA exchanges---as indicative  of the congressional willingness to cannibalize its staff. (Losing the subsidy exacerbates the compensation slide Hill staffers are experiencing. (See here for House and here for Senate pay data.)

Coupling recent history with public polling, Madonna and Ostrander are pessimistic. More than 90 percent of the public that had an opinion on the matter agreeing that Congress had too many staff---despite the public’s gross underestimation of actual staff numbers. Only 2 percent of American surveyed know staff has decreased recently, and 85 percent erroneously believed staff has increased. Put all these data points together and the probability that members of Congress will increase its staff look slim.

Despite the disincentives, Congress has bolstered its manpower previously. Madonna and Ostrander’s analysis indicates that the most successful argument in favor of staff increases was the need of the legislative branch to balance the power of the executive branch. With the legislative branch now more dwarfed by the executive branch than ever, one wonders if today’s Congress can transcend its ideological warfare and see an institutional interest in strengthening itself.