Congress Is a Desert, Not a Swamp

While “populists” of the right and left may think Congress is a corrupt gang of swindlers, the reality is that the institution is short on brainpower and information, and too inept to steal. Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

The prevailing “populist” demonology (popular now on the right as well as the left) about Congress as the nerve center of the D.C. “swamp” holds that members of Congress (and to a considerable extent their staff) are enriching themselves via princely salaries, lavish benefits and perks, and obscene bribes as they pretend loyalty to the public, political parties, and ideological principles.

It’s not all made up, of course.  Members (and staff) often cash in with high-paying, high-flying lobbying jobs once they leave office. There are non-material benefits to service in Congress, especially in terms of social status and ego gratification. And there are bribes, though most are campaign contributions that simply extend the period of pre-wealthy time on the public payroll.

But Congress is more of a desert than a swamp. Far from the High Life, members usually make do with significantly smaller salaries and benefits than they had in private life; they have to maintain dual residences (though a surprising number simply sleep in their offices for the three nights a week they are typically in D.C. (not counting frequent recesses when they are not in Washington at all) and travel back and forth a lot (an especial problem for West Coast members).

Beyond that, they mostly vote the party line, shuffle around from committee to floor to fundraising to social obligations, and run for reelection (even if they are in “safe” seats, they have to worry about heading off primary challenges).

And under criticism as corrupt, or as big spenders, Congress, especially under Republican management, is likely to make things worse by cutting its own staff and committee and research budgets, and making itself even more inept and dependent on the party line or lobbyist “advice.”

Not surprisingly, as a new survey of staff from the Congressional Management Foundation shows, members of Congress don’t have adequate staff support and half the time don’t know what they are doing. Here’s what the Foundation concludes after examining senior staff assessments of their own and other members, and of Congress as an institution:

In the past few decades, under both parties, House and Senate leadership have either implemented strategies or allowed conditions to evolve that diminish the ability of individual Senators and Representatives to deeply consider and influence public policy. These include the reduction of the role and strength of committees, the limiting of debate and amendments on the House and Senate floors, and the atrophying of institutional resources. Understanding and deliberating public policy issues and identifying sound solutions is the core function of a legislature and central to a robust democracy. If the Congress is not working, we must question whether democracy is working.

In more individual findings, the Foundation showed staffers as having a low opinion of their own “knowledge, skills and ability,” and an even lower opinion of the “time and resources” their bosses have to “understand, consider and deliberate policy and legislation.” Committees meet less often than they used to, and have smaller staffs, and there are limited opportunities to access non-partisan sources of expertise.

As Jeff Stein notes in an article on the Foundation’s report, this represents a baleful long-term trend that has caused predictable problems:

Democrats under President Obama tried to reverse staffing declines … but had their efforts either rebuffed or reversed by Republicans. Dollar for dollar, the House of Representatives is set to spend exactly the same amount on its internal budget as it did in 2010 — not accounting for inflation or the increased cost of building maintenance.

“What’s happened as expert committee staff [are] leaving is you have lobbyists come in from whatever companies they work at do write the legislation,” [Daniel] Schuman [of Demand Progress] says. “Weakening the administrative state has devolved power to the special interests.”

From a more mundane, individual perspective, members are on a treadmill heading toward ever-poorer performance and accountability, as Lee Drutman and Steven Teles observed two years ago:

Imagine that you are a rank-and-file member of the House. Your small office of at most three or four policy staff is already stretched thin. The policy staff are also likely to predominantly be in their twenties or maybe thirties, something that shocks observers from abroad. In the 2009 movie In the Loop, a senior British civil servant, upon meeting an American twenty-something in a suit, trenchantly observes, “He’s probably running something relatively major …They’re all kids in Washington. It’s like Bugsy Malone but with real guns….”

If you want to accomplish something and raise your profile, you can turn to the armies of corporate lobbyists, who are only too happy to enlist you in their substantive policy ambitions, or you can turn to your party’s base with some symbolic position taking. You probably already chose one of these paths in your rise to getting elected.

So attack Congress as a corrupt gang of self-enriching swamp creatures if you wish. But the reality is less dramatic but even more morally questionable, and arguably more corrosive of genuine democracy than a simple kleptocracy: Legislation is rarely driven by facts or even rational arguments, but by partisan drones struggling to keep up. That they may respond to “populist” criticisms by further impoverishing their capacity to do their jobs is just sad.

Congress Is a Desert, Not a Swamp