Proposed: A New Congressional Regulatory Office

If Congress has often been unwilling to actively control the output of the administrative state, over the years it has also become effectively unable to do so. As the administrative state’s reach has expanded, Congress’s capacity to oversee it has stagnated. Congressional staff, both in total and in committees, has actually declined since the late 1970s. The Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service, which provide crucial support to Congress’s executive-branch oversight generally, also reached their peaks in the late 1970s and have lost roughly 35% of their combined staffs since then. The Office of Technology Assessment, which helped Congress grapple with the technical complexities of many regulatory matters, was abolished in 1995. There is little reason to think that these quantitative decreases have been offset by qualitative improvements; indeed, our image of a congressional staff today is a gaggle of bright twenty-somethings performing continuous triage in hopes of staving off embarrassments. As long as Congress remains so badly unable to understand and analyze the massive outputs of the administrative state, there can be little hope of the legislature reversing its marginalization.

Rooted in this admission of weakness, a new Congressional Regulation Office, or CRO, would offer the most direct route to allow Congress to compete in the regulatory arena, as it has not done for many years. By no means would the CRO make legislators the equals of agency officials in terms of specialized knowledge ; elected officials will remain generalists trying to understand the work of specialists, so it will always be an asymmetric relationship. But right now, Congress has little chance of even being able to sort out which criticisms of the administrative state’s outputs are worth crediting. This leaves two predominant orientations: blind trust and blind anger, neither of which is likely to sway agencies that view Congress mainly as a minor chronic annoyance…. (Read more at National Affairs)