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Create a Professional Advisory Council for committees, remove cameras from hearings (at least some of them), reform committee jurisdictions

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       Maya Kornberg, Ph.D. candidate, Oxford University

Reform:   Create a Professional Advisory Council for committees, remove cameras from hearings (at least some of them), reform committee jurisdictions

On March 27, the Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its second public hearing. The hearing was about past reform efforts, a thoughtful place to ground a renewed attempt at reform. The discussion considered reforms to staffing and congressional procedures as two central issues. Legislators asked how staff can be bolstered, and whether to revise previous decisions about public access to hearing recordings or the way committee jurisdictions are drawn. I suggest that the committee should  draw on the wealth of past recommendations  and previous efforts in rethinking these important areas.

1) Support: Improve staff longevity and impartiality

The first problem the new committee said it will address is staffing. Congress is chronically under staffed. Between 1975 and 2015, congressional support staff shrunk by one-third. Moreover, committees, the center of policy specialization, are plagued by high staff turnover. A new chairman or ranking member may fire and hire new staff; as a result, committees lose their organizational knowledge and cross-party relationships every time power changes hands. According to Whiteman’s comprehensive academic study of congressional staff, Hill staffers had an average of only 3.3 years in their current positions, and a large number of staffers had very little experience in policy before working on the Hill.

In order to mitigate the dangers of staff turnover, committees could follow political scientist Nelson Polsby’s 1971 recommendation to create outside advisory boards that would outlive chairmen. Polsby suggested that outside advisory groups may advise the chairman on technical matters. The chair and ranking member would still be given a part of the budget to hire some of their own staff, but the committee would allot a number of positions for expert, long term staffers. Polsby’s analysis of committees explains it best. He writes, “unswerving loyalty to the chairman is seldom enough to produce technically advanced criticism of executive proposals, sophisticated insight into alternatives, or sensitive awareness of emerging problems in the world. Yet these are what Congress needs.” Polsby’s argument makes the case for prioritizing professional expertise and experience over the chairman’s selection. Creating a number of permanent professional posts on each committee would go a long way towards creating the “sophisticated insight” committees need.

2) Procedures: Rethink the 1970 LRA Reforms

The last major legislative reorganization act (LRA) was passed in 1970. Among its many changes, the LRA refashioned committee jurisdictions and authorized cameras in committee rooms for the first time. I suggest the new committee follow the 1970 LRA’s example and re-address these two issues.

Since their inception in the 1790s, congressional committees have been shaped and reshaped to address the policy problems of the day. The contemporary Congress faces different policy problems than the Congress of 1970 and it should be equipped with committees to handle them. Perhaps most notably, there is no committee focused solely on tech issues such as cyber threats, regulation of the tech industry, and issues of privacy and information sharing on the internet, even though the relative growth of this sector is hard to ignore. As a result, many committees hold hearings about tech-related topics and the issue falls through the cracks because responsibility is not centralized in one committee. This example highlights the need for the new Select Committee to critically reassess committee structure and remodel jurisdictions.

The second change made by the 1970 LRA was the introduction of cameras into committee rooms. Today almost all committee hearings are recorded and broadcast live. Cameras have turned committee hearings into a theatrical stage, an excellent platform for politicians to be seen and heard by constituents rather than to deliberate and learn.  Over 20 million tuned into the Kavanaugh nomination hearing. Of course not all hearings have this staggering viewership; politicized issues and branded personalities tend to draw larger crowds.

However, the deleterious effects of cameras on learning and deliberation are wide ranging. If every move is pre-ordained, then there may be less space for the change of opinion that deliberative hearings can yield. Indeed Steiner et al.’s  (2004) exploration of the quality of deliberation in various legislatures found that discourse in non-public legislative arenas was far more deliberative than discourse in public legislative arenas. This suggests that public forums stand to limit deliberation. Perhaps when there are no cameras, productiveness dominates posturing. Though some may argue that cameras increase transparency and bolster American democracy, I ask: At what price? A critical reexamination of when cameras are truly necessary could go a long way in restoring the high-quality deliberation and bipartisanship that once characterized committees.

The new Select Committee faces a gargantuan task in reforming congressional staffing and procedures. The discussion above highlights the ways in which it can ease its job by looking to the past. Bringing back old practices such as limiting cameras in committees or the periodical reconfiguring of committee jurisdictions as well as drawing on the wealth of previous suggestions (such as Polsby’s advisory councils) are just three of many possible applications of past practices to bolster the future Congress.

Thank you for your consideration. I’d be happy to discuss these ideas further with committee staff and members. You may contact me at maya.kornberg@politics.ox.ac.uk.

Filed Under:
Topics: Reform Efforts
Maya Kornberg
Maya Kornberg specializes in legislatures and legislative reform. She is a legislative studies specialist, currently leading research for a UNDP and I...