Silencing the Senate’s watchdog: How staff cuts and churn are damaging the Senate Rules Committee

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By Jean P. Bordewich

The Senate Rules Committee is in crisis. The alarming statistics on its staff turnover, published by LegBranch.com, should worry anyone concerned about creeping congressional dysfunction. In less than a year, the Committee has been stripped of its most experienced people. Yet their knowledge of precedents, norms and informal understandings helps hold the institution together in difficult times like today. Their loss matters.

Of particular concern is the departure of non-partisan staff, including several at once during a transition in minority staff directors. Traditionally the non-partisan Rules staff, called “non-designated,” served both majority and minority equally. Decisions on their hiring, salaries, and —where necessary— termination, were made jointly. This buttressed faith in their impartiality and authority.

Departures have also decimated the Republican staff. New chairs and ranking members have the prerogative to hire their own staff without input from the other party and there is usually some turnover. Both made changes at the start of this Congress, but nearly everyone on the majority staff is new. In recent years, Republicans had retained almost all of their employees.  That continuity made them very effective, whether they were in the minority or majority.

As Senate committee staffs became increasingly partisan in recent decades, the Rules Committee remained known for majority and minority jointly making decisions about administering the Senate. Even during the 111th and 112th Congresses, a period of tight budgets and rising partisanship, the committee staff worked together when committee budget authorizations had to be cut. They also proposed a new framework, accepted by leadership, that stabilized how much was allowed for each party on a committee. It wasn’t easy, but it was bipartisan and it held.

The non-designated staff—typically about six in number—are the fiscal watchdogs of the Senate. They have credibility and authority when they are regarded as knowledgeable, non-partisan and fair. What do they do? They audit about 4,000 vouchers per month from senators’ personal offices; advise on the separation of official and unofficial expenses; review contracts for congressional entities such as the Sergeant at Arms; approve requests for waivers to Senate regulations; and approve requests for people detailed from the executive branch to Congress.  

Other responsibilities of the non-partisan staff have included working with the Senate media galleries, mediating disputes where necessary; providing continuity in planning from one inauguration to the next; working with the Government Publishing Office on official Senate publications; co-managing the summer intern lecture series; and answering dozens of calls a week from personal and committee staff about a wide range of Senate regulations, precedents and norms. The chief clerk manages Rules Committee hearings and is a resource for the entire Senate.

The Rules Committee has modest legislative jurisdiction (related primarily to elections and Senate governance), but it has oversight authority over several legislative branch agencies and the Senate itself, including continuity of operations in the event of a disaster. And it administers the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies every four years.

The Rules Committee usually operates behind the scenes. It interprets Senate regulations and rules under changing circumstances, and when necessary, rewrites them through a bipartisan process.  As an arbiter of Senate norms, it relies heavily on diplomatic problem solving, since it has little power to force compliance.  Newcomers too often learn that ham-handed attempts at imposing literal interpretations of Senate regulations can easily backfire.

The Senate can ill afford the Rules Committee’s abrupt and sweeping loss of institutional memory. Sadly, the understanding of Senate precedents and processes cannot be replaced overnight. Further, the destruction of bipartisan norms that allowed the Rules Committee to quietly solve institutional problems has consequences the Senate will profoundly regret.

Jean P. Bordewich served as staff director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration from 2009-2014, and as staff director of the 2013 Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.