Human capital and institutional decline in congressional appropriations committees

The new, divided Congress about to be seated in January will feature one of the most reform-minded freshman classes in recent congressional history. As Congress considers sweeping electoral and institutional reforms, it is important to examine the two committees that are responsible for overseeing a $4 trillion government budget—the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

In a new policy report, R Street Governance Project Senior Fellow Casey Burgat and Research Assistant Ryan Dukeman take a deep dive into data on appropriations committee staff members, including their numbers, tenures, salaries and career paths. They contend that this is essential to understanding the committees and the congressional appropriations process at large. In addition, they offer context that supports calls for reform.

The paper argues that as the size of the federal budget has continued to increase, House and Senate Appropriations Committee staffing levels have not kept pace. As a result, each appropriations staffer in the House is responsible for 52 percent more federal dollars than he or she was just 16 years ago. And each Senate appropriations staffer’s workload has increased 30 percent during the same period. Moreover, there are still very real gender discrepancies both in terms of the types of jobs women hold on the committees, and their pay levels relative to men who hold the same titles.

Because of these capacity deficiencies, Congress is unable to provide sufficient oversight of the $4 trillion they appropriate each fiscal year. Until something changes, we can expect the federal government to continue operating by way of short-term funding and omnibus legislation.

The authors add, “Members and experts alike often call for a return to regular order in the appropriations process. But Congress is fast approaching a point where very few current members or staffers were around the last time regular order was followed. Can we reasonably expect to return to something no one has experience doing?”

Filed Under:
Topics: Budget & Appropriations