APSA Task Force Memorandum: Modernizing congressional capacity

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:   Lee Drutman, New America (chair); Larry Evans, William and Mary College; Bruce M. Patton, Harvard University, and Ruth Bloch Rubin, University of Chicago

Reform: Modernizing congressional capacity

A Report of the the Subcommittee on Congressional Capacity of the American Political Science Association Presidential Task Force Project on Congressional Reform[1] All recommendations of the American Political Science Association Presidential Task Force Project on Congressional Reform represent the views of its participants, not of the American Political Science Association. (A PDF copy of this document may be downloaded here.)

Congress today is overwhelmed. After decades of self-imposed disinvestment in expertise and staffing, Congress lacks the resources and knowledge to stand on an equal footing either with the executive branch, or with the tens of thousands of lobbyists who now overwhelm Washington (many of whom are former staffers now earning multiples of their Capitol Hill pay). On issue after issue, Congress’s available in-house expertise is inadequate to support fully-informed independent judgment of executive or lobbyist proposals, and certainly inadequate to lead in policy innovation.

But Congress is not helpless. Both the House and the Senate can choose to invest in their own expertise and capacity. In this report, we examine the House’s options for bulking up its resources, so that it can best represent the people as a powerful “first branch” of government.

In this report, we explore five approaches the House could take should members decide they want to bulk up resources. We examine options for investing in: individual member offices; committees; support agencies; caucuses and shared staff; and party leadership. We provide ideas for both straightforward and innovative staffing arrangements, and review the pros and cons of each in modest detail.

Ultimately, how Congress adds resources should depend on which problem members believe added resources should solve. In our assessment, as well as the assessment of many representatives, a major problem facing Congress is that it doesn’t know enough — that too much crucial policy expertise exists outside of the institution, either in the executive branch or among lobbyists. And these information asymmetries leave Congress at a severe disadvantage. This is the problem that added capacity can most directly solve.

We believe that adding capacity directly to committees is most likely to both increase substantive policy expertise and at least offer some potential opportunity for reducing polarization by creating more potential venues for unexpected bipartisan coalitions. We also encourage the House to explore and experiment with a mix of alternative arrangements we have suggested….(Read more)

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