Stupid Congress: 20 years of GOP war on congressional competence


Ever since Newt Gingrich consolidated power in 1995, purging any Congressional technical experts who might question his judgment, the GOP has waged war on intelligence in the halls of Congress, leaving an expertise void that has been filled by lobbyists, especially the Heritage Foundation, and an oversight void that hasn't been filled at all.

The phenomenon is meticulously documented in a long and important feature by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards in the Washington Monthly, who trace the phenomenon up to the modern Tea Party and its utter contempt for congressional staffers (remember when they tried to pass political theater legislation that would forbid Congress from contributing to staffers' healthcare? Imagine any competent Congressional staffer who could get any other job sticking around after that).

The first effect is an outsourcing of policy development. Much of the research, number crunching, and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits. This has strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation, and given conservative groups an added measure of influence over Congress, as the shutdown itself illustrates.

Recall that last summer and fall many establishment Republicans, having lived through Newt Gingrich’s disastrous shutdown in the 1990s, argued that doing so again would be folly. So why did so many GOP House members ignore those warnings and listen instead to the Heritage Foundation? Part of the reason was that they were conditioned to do so. Over the years, as Congress’s in-house capacity for independent policy thinking atrophied, the House GOP largely ceded that responsibility to Heritage, which has aligned itself with the Tea Party since former Senator Jim DeMint took the helm in 2013. The think tank became the only outside group that was allowed to brief members and their staff at the influential weekly lunches of the Republican Study Committee, the policy and messaging arm of House conservatives. So when Heritage promised, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats would cave to GOP demands for a delay in the individual mandate and cuts to “special” health care benefits for congressional staffers, many GOP members believed them. (Many who didn’t followed Heritage’s instructions anyway when its lobbying arm, Heritage Action, orchestrated a grassroots email campaign demanding that members hang tough. Subtext? Or else.)

The second effect of the brain drain is a significant decline in Congress’s institutional ability to monitor and investigate a growing and ever-more-complex federal government. This decline has been going on quietly, behind the scenes, for so many years that hardly anyone even notices anymore. But like termites eating away at the joists, there’s a danger of catastrophic collapse unless regular inspections are done. While Congress continues to devote what limited investigative resources it has into the fished-out waters of the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi “scandals” (thirteen Benghazi hearings in the House alone, with a new select committee launched in May), just in the last year we’ve witnessed two appalling government fiascoes that better congressional oversight might have avoided: the botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges and the uncontrolled expansion of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. (Fun fact: while annual federal spending on intelligence has roughly doubled since 1997, staff levels on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have actually declined.) Debacles like these, by undermining the public’s faith in government, wind up perversely advancing the conservative antigovernment agenda—another reason why many Republicans don’t worry much about the brain drain on the Hill. But the rest of us should.

The Big Lobotomy [Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards/Washington Monthly]

(Image: How to prepare the skull for surgery, brain exposed, c. 16th century, Shaheen Lakhan, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. Ratel says:

    Both sides do it! Everyone is to blame! I only vote 3rd party alien abductees! If you disagree, you're just as bad as the worst Republican!

  2. While that link to link to Altemeyer's incredible "The Authoitarians" is very important (and highly recommended reading), there is another factor that keeps conservatives and science apart: the language barrier.

    You aren't going to convince someone of anything when you aren't even speaking the same language, and in the case of people such as the anti-science conservatives, they don't speak the language of reason and logic, so why should we expect a logical argument to convince them? Instead they see phatic language/expression as more important and convincing. This is why they respond to alpha-male style grandstanding, and see peace talks (regardless of how effective they may be) as weak or cowardly.

    The link above is from the Dover trial era of the creationist/"intelligent design" brouhaha, but the analysis it contains describes a far broader concept that is basically synonymous with the anti-inteligence conservatives.

  3. This analysis is great, but it does nothing to change the situation. And the bridges continue to fall down.

    For an especially horrifying example, read up on how Clinton staffed the upper ranks of FEMA with experts... and then his successor purged them all and put in political donors. And then hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and "government couldn't do anything right."

  4. Wow, where to start with the logical fallacies in this one.

    "In fact, had the Republicans’ desired language passed, congressional personnel would have become the only employees in America whose employer (in their case, the federal government) was explicitly forbidden from contributing to their health care"

    Which ... doesn't matter in the slightest, because health care contributions are simply a part of a pay package, which could be adjusted to compensate. And, more to the point, this was a failed effort - it didn't work.

    "The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995 and the Tea Partiers of 2011 share the same basic dream: to defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs that have been created by bipartisan majorities since the New Deal."

    Really? And how is that working out for them?

    "Of course, all of this slashing and cutting has done nothing to actually help shrink the federal government. Real federal spending has increased 50 percent since 1995, in line with the growth of the U.S. population and economy."

    So ... what they did had the opposite effect - or was completely ineffective at achieving their supposed goal. Noted.

    And wait a minute - a 50% increase in spending was in line with U.S. population growth? Ummm ... in 1990, the U.S. population was ... 248 million. In 2010, the U.S. population was 308 million. My math might be rusty, but that would seem to be a 25% increase. And in 1995 the federal budget was about $2.1 trillion, while in 2013 the federal budget was $3.4 trillion, which is more like ... a 61% increase. And economic growth? That's the only thing that he's even close on, $10.27 trillion in 1995 to $15.94 trillion in 2013, for an increase of 55%. But neither of those numbers is "in-line" with federal budget growth ... even if you accept the unspoken assumption that government spending should be in-line with population growth and economic growth, and if you ignore that much of the way this "in-line" spending was achieved was two unnecessary wars and a massive bipartisan bailout of banks during the financial crisis.

    "That, in turn, has made the jobs of congressional staffers, of keeping an eye on government and sorting through the ever-growing amount of information coming at them from lobbyists and constituents, far more difficult, even as their numbers have not remotely kept pace with the growth of government and K Street."

    Okay - congressional staffers are the honest, upright, stalwart guardians of good government, their numbers cruelly slashed in 1995 by the stupid Republicans. They, and they alone, take the responsibility for monitoring the leviathan, ensuring that government is running efficiently and ... sorry, I can't even say it with a straight face.

    In reality land, congressional staff positions are highly partisan, high turnover positions that serve as the fast track to well-paid lobbying gigs. Most of them are hired by the majority party in that branch of Congress, and when leadership changes hands, staffers are routinely dismissed and replaced along partisan lines - as the author of this article admits. Most congressional staffers are either young and willing to work for the low pay in exchange for access to the halls of power, or veteran lobbyists serving a tour in the staff when their patrons were in power. The idea that congressional staff were somehow long-term unbiased experts, serving selflessly for low pay year after year, is simply laughable.

    And all that ignores the fact that Democrats have been in charge of both branches of Congress many times since 1995 - and from 2008 to 2010, they were in charge of the entire government, with an almost filibuster-proof majority. And yet, nothing was done about staffing levels, the OTA, or any of the other things changed by the Republicans in 1995. That should be a clue that this is an issue that is simply irrelevant.

    And finally, the real kicker:

    "in the last year we’ve witnessed two appalling government fiascoes that better congressional oversight might have avoided: the botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges and the uncontrolled expansion of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs."

    So let me get this straight. The author believes that a shortage of congressional staff was the cause of the botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges? A program proposed by a Democratic President, passed by a Democratic Congress, and executed by a Democratic administration over the course of six years, during a time when the Republicans were largely powerless to do anything about it - and who failed to do anything about it even when they tried? And that a lack of congressional staff was the problem with the uncontrolled expansion of the NSA, who to this day are defended by both a Democratic President and virtually every Democrat in the House and Senate, except for a handful of stalwarts ... who are working with a similar handful of Republicans to try to bring down the NSA leviathan? Does the author believe that extra congressional staff would have also stopped the march to war in Iraq, which was also nearly unanimously supported by Democrats?

    The logical leaps this article requires in order to remain plausible are mind-boggling. I mean, let's be honest - most of the Republicans in Congress are definite bad actors. But the supposed lack of congressional staff is not anywhere near the core problem, nor would increasing staffing levels change a damn thing in Congress.

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