How small is Congress relative to government?

Source: Casey Burgat,

The upcoming issue of Extensions, a journal published by the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, will present a symposium of articles on the capacity and performance of the modern Congress. I used my contribution to dive into a simple question that I had been neglecting for far too long given my work in advocating for a stronger legislative branch: how big are each of the three federal branches of government?

Here’s an excerpt from my essay:

I couldn’t fully answer how big the federal government is in terms of dollars or employees outside of the topline numbers I’ve used many times before: a $4.1 trillion annual budget and 2.1 million civilian employees.

And therein lies a big problem stemming from a common misconception. As many suspect—and as many have argued around the proverbial dinner table—the federal government is huge. This is undeniable. But it’s not huge everywhere, at least not relative other parts of government. There are substantial disparities in the sizes and costs of programs, departments and agencies, and more fundamentally, between the branches of government themselves. By painting the entire government as too big, too costly, we effectively label every part of the government the same way without regard to the role we expect that portion to play in our system. We conflate who and what is big, and it greatly influences how willing the public is to untangle government productivity and success. We paint all parts of the federal government, despite having completely different roles and responsibilities, with the same broad brush.

Using historical budget and employment tables provided by the Office of Management and Budget, I created some crude measures to help answer this question. The illustration above is a ratio of executive branch (civilian departments only) to legislative branch spending authority going back to 1976.

The illustration below depicts staff counts at the various civilian federal agencies compared to Congress. Again, these measures are bit makeshift for a variety of reasons, but they do speak to a harsh capacity differential and tell us a lot about who actually administers (writes, even) the laws Congress is tasked with authoring. And the vital function of oversight? The disparities clue us in on how outmatched Congress is and why overseeing the executive branch is getting harder and harder.

Source: Casey Burgat,

Stay tuned for the forthcoming essay!

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Topics: Oversight