With modernization, Congress could be the branch you’ve been waiting for

Following the Supreme Court’s June 30 decision in West Virginia vs. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which held that the EPA did not have broad authority to overhaul the nation’s electricity production, many people leaped to express dismay that such significant decision-making power would rest once again with Congress.

This concern appears to be rooted in the understanding that members of Congress do not have the background and expertise needed to make the complicated, weighty decisions regarding major environmental challenges. After all, the EPA is staffed with distinguished scientists in the field with access to mountains of data.

By contrast, expertise in Congress can seem paltry. According to data from Legistorm.com, the average member of Congress has only been in office for eight years and the average age of congressional staff is only 32. A 2020 report from New America, “Congressional Brain Drain,” paints a stark picture of high turnover and inexperience that quickly funnels staff from the Hill to more lucrative options on K Street. More recently, Issue One looked into the low pay of junior Hill staff, with one in eight making less than a living wage in one of the most expensive areas of the country, making it no wonder that few consider a long-term career on the Hill. The volatile staffing situation means that often young, green staff are placed in roles of considerable responsibility with heavy workloads across a broad range of issues, and even directly advise members of Congress.

However, the fact that congressional staff and the members they serve might lack the deep knowledge of some federal agency staff or an industry lobbyist doesn’t change the fact that Congress, as the First Branch, is exactly where such consequential decisions should be made, particularly ones that affect large swaths of the population and our economy. It’s not the division of power or system of checks and balances that need to change, it’s Congress.

Years of short-changing the legislative branch have significantly undermined congressional capacity. But by adopting many of the recommendations made by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Congress can be better prepared to take on complex issues and take back the decision-making power it has increasingly ceded to both the executive and judicial branches of government. These recommendations include better pay and other benefits for staff that would make Congress more competitive in the job market, such as streamlining processes, encouraging bipartisan relationship-building and information sharing, and conducting more effective hearings in the pursuit of information over viral moments, which would provide ample resources for Hill offices and congressional support agencies alike. A number of these much-needed reforms have already been implemented, and others could be passed via the House’s FY2023 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, as detailed by Demand Progress, though much more remains to be done.

Prioritizing the work of the Modernization Committee, and pursuing a like-minded improvement process in the Senate, would help equip Congress to be the institution our Founders intended and Americans need.

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