Members of Congress are specializing less often. That makes them less effective.
In a new op-ed for the Washington Post, Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman make the case that Congress needs more expertise – and explain how to encourage changing that culture.
Craig Volden (@craigvolden) is professor of public policy and politics in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking (@thelawmakers).
Alan E. Wiseman is chair of the department of political science at Vanderbilt University, where he is the Cornelius Professor of Political Economy and professor of political science and law, and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.
In our research, we have focused on how lawmakers in Congress acquire expertise, perhaps improving their effectiveness at lawmaking. We have found that legislators are becoming less specialized, and hence less able to acquire the deep expertise needed to overcome gridlock.
Members of Congress can be foxes or hedgehogs
Our work explores how legislators’ specialization in particular issues affects their ability to advance their agendas. To study this, we looked at each bill proposed in each two-year Congress from 1973-2016, classifying into one of 19 different issue areas from agriculture to education to international trade. We then examined how many issues each member of the House and the Senate tried to tackle in their proposals, as well as how much attention they paid to their top issue. Finally, we compared those who specialized — likely developing policy expertise — with the generalists, to see which strategy was most effective.
Lawmakers are becoming less specialized
Nonetheless, the graphs below show that, while the scope of specialization in both chambers has fluctuated across time, specialization has become relatively rare in both the House and the Senate in recent years. Today, only 20 percent of House members are hedgehogs (dedicating at least half of their bill portfolio to a single issue), with only 5 to 10 percent of senators falling into this category. Furthermore, compared to the mid-1990s (and many other points in congressional history) there are notably fewer hedgehogs and more foxes than there used to be.
There are proposed reforms
Scholars and practitioners have noticed the diminished lawmaking capacity of Congress — and how the executive branch has stepped into the void. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, for example, has advanced proposals to improve House operations. Some show significant promise for enhancing expertise in Congress, including:
- Improving pay and benefits for legislative staff
- Establishing bipartisan briefings for committee staff
- Reestablishing and improving the Office of Technology Assessment
- Enhancing the responsiveness of the Congressional Research Service
Others have proposed that Congress could return to “regular order” and rely more on policymaking by bipartisan experts in committees than by party leaders behind closed doors. Removing term limits from committee and subcommittee chairs might allow them to develop greater expertise. In addition, scholars have advanced several novel proposals to facilitate information flows and the development of expertise.
Read the full opinion piece in the Washington Post.
Editors’ note: This article is part of “Rethinking Our Democracy,”a series on institutional reforms to Congress and the presidency, which is a joint initiative by the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago and Protect Democracy. All other articles within this series can be found here.