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)