Our Overwhelmed Congress
Something remarkable happened this spring—Congress’s public approval rose to 31 percent. If that sounds like little to celebrate, bear in mind that the percentage of Americans who are happy with Congress had not been that high since August of 2009.
John and Jane Q. Public’s esteem for Congress rose because the legislature had passed a massive aid package and those dollars were beginning to land in desperate Americans’ pockets. The uptick in affection, alas, was short-lived. By summer’s end, Congress was engulfed in bitter bickering over enacting additional aid and public approval slumped to 17 percent.
This instance illustrates a basic truth about Americans: they want a Congress that solves problems, and they have little patience for partisan posturing.
Those who want to make Congress more effective often take a “throw the bums out” attitude. These reformers encourage giving majority control of the House or Senate (or both) to one party or another, and replacing individual legislators who are deemed roadblocks to reform.
These approaches are not without merit. Our national legislature has some clowns, cranks and crooks, who should be sent home. And if one party does not govern competently, it is reasonable to let the other party give it a whirl.
Unfortunately, the efforts to swap in purportedly better people have barely moved the needle. For the past 15 years, public disapproval of Congress’s performance has averaged at around 70 percent. Typically, when people look at Washington, as former Speaker Paul Ryan observed, “it looks like chaos”—not leadership or governance, regardless of which party is in control.
If the people in Congress are not the only problem, then what is? A big factor is the institution. Congress simply is not structured to meet the demands upon it. It struggles to live up to the many duties put upon it by Article I of the Constitution. It is swamped by the immense quantity of constituent and interest group demands upon it. Our national legislature is constantly trying to catch up with presidents and their agencies, who make policy via regulations, executive orders, and the like. Congress, quite simply, is overwhelmed.
The causes for this situation are not difficult to discern. Since the early 20th century, Congress has empowered and funded an ever-larger executive branch to do more things for the public. However, the more Congress does that, the work it creates for itself. Each year Congress must oversee these agencies, and it needs to review policies and programs to see if they are effective. It also must pass legislation to fund these agencies and programs.
Meanwhile, Congress only periodically bothers to scale up its capacity to meet these additional workloads. In the 1940s, Congress restructured itself and bolstered its paltry staff levels so it could oversee the executive branch, which had grown during the Great Depression and World War II. It did the same in the 1970s—it increased its institutional capacity by hiring more staff and by establishing two new support agencies, the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Technology Assessment. Congress invested in itself for the sake of rebalancing the tripartite governance system and improving its ability to serve the public.
It has been nearly 50 years since Congress has reformed itself in a major way. Crazily, Congress actually cut its capacity in the 1990s as part of the Gingrich Revolution. Today, Congress has fewer staffers than it did in the 1980s. It also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and its other legislative branch support agencies.
More work to do and less congressional capacity makes for poor governance; and the public can see it, and does not like it.
In part, Congress’s hesitance to improve its capacity is rooted in power. Those who have the most power in Congress have the least interest in altering how the place runs. Additionally, many legislators fear voters will throw them out of office if they spend more money on Congress.
What too many on the Hill fail to appreciate is that being pennywise is pound foolish. The amount Congress spends on its own operations is a puny percentage of federal spending. And an underperforming legislature invites retribution from voters—throw the bums out. In the past 30 years, control of the House and Senate has shifted back and forth between the two parties at the highest rate in more than a century. With Congress short on capacity, elections over the past decade have mostly been a winner-take-nothing experience for the parties: Democrats got Obamacare, and the GOP won tax cuts and judges. That is it.
Also lost upon too many on Capitol Hill is that strengthening Congress can be achieved through means other than money. Congress can change outdated processes that thwart legislators from making policy. It can change the way Congress holds hearings so that they achieve something more than partisan political theater. The House of Representatives could pick committee chairs based upon their expertise and skill at getting things done rather than their campaign fundraising abilities. The possibilities for reform are extensive.
Fortunately, the work of increasing Congress’s capacity has been moving forward over the past five years, but slowly and in fits. The impetus began with the various individuals and groups that have participated in the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group and who are part of the broader good government ecosystem. Philanthropic support, I should add, has been essential to this undertaking.
Two years ago, pressure from legislators got Democrats in the House to agree to the establishment of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (SCMC). Some upgrades have been enacted, but many of the to-do’s on the SCMC’s list remain. And there are multiple aspects of Congress’s capacity that were not part of the SCMC’s mandate. Decades of neglect mean an immense amount of work remains to be done.
The U.S. Constitution gives our national legislature the authority to organize itself as it sees fit and to fund itself as much as it pleases. Both Senators and Members of the House of Representatives need to recognize and embrace this truth, and act upon it.
Without a well-functioning national legislature, America cannot be a well-functioning republic. And if that motive is too high to impel action, then legislators should consider that they can improve their own standing in the public’s eye by admitting Congress has a capacity problem and doing something about it.
Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2020).