How Republicans Made Congress Stupid
Credit: Amy Swan
Last September, as they scrambled to decide on one final ultimatum before shutting down the federal government, Republican House leaders came up with what seemed like an odd demand: to strip their own staff of health care benefits.
At the time, staffers reacted to the news with a mixture of despair and disbelief. “It was like getting sucker-punched by your boss,” one aide told me. “Everyone was thinking, What’s the point? How is screwing us going to help you?”
The dubious logic behind the House Republicans’ demand can be traced back to a contested provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the gutting of which was the price the Republicans were demanding for agreeing to fund the government. The provision requires employees of the U.S. Congress, including members and their staffs, to buy insurance on the new health care exchanges, while still allowing them to receive subsidies from their employer. Over the course of more than a year, ideologues at several conservative think tanks, especially the Tea Party-friendly Heritage Foundation, which was pushing for the shutdown, managed to put an imaginative spin on the provision, convincing the conservative world that members and their staff were getting a sneaky, backroom deal, a “special exemption from Obamacare.”
In fact, had the Republicans’ desired language passed, congressional personnel would have become the only employees in America whose employer (in their case, the federal government) was explicitly forbidden from contributing to their health care—a blow that, in all likelihood, would have caused most of the best and brightest staffers, and perhaps some lawmakers, to simply hightail it for the door. Some quite conservative members even said as much. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, in a candid moment later, called the move “political theater” that would do nothing more than catalyze a rapid “brain drain” in Congress.
Best and Brightest: The Watergate hearings attracted such talented staffers as young Hillary Rodham (center) and lendendary Justice Department lawyer John Doar (left). Credit: Getty Images
While Sensenbrenner was right, one must appreciate the irony. A debilitating brain drain has actually been under way in Congress for the past twenty-five years, and it is Sensenbrenner and his conservative colleagues who have engineered it.
A quick refresher: In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research. (The Republicans who took over the Senate in 1995 were less draconian, cutting committee staff by about 16 percent and leaving the committee system largely in place.) Today, the GAO and the CRS, which serve both House and Senate, are each operating at about 80 percent of their 1979 capacity. While Senate committee staffs have rebounded somewhat under Democratic control, every single House standing committee had fewer staffers in 2009 than in 1994. Since 2011, with a Tea Party-radicalized GOP back in control of the House, Congress has cut its budget by a whopping 20 percent, a far higher ratio than any other federal agency, leading, predictably, to staff layoffs, hiring and salary freezes, and drooping morale.
Why would conservative lawmakers decimate the staff and organizational capacity of an institution they themselves control? Part of it is political optics: What better way to show the conservative voters back home that you’re serious about shrinking government than by cutting your own staff? But a bigger reason is strategic. The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995 and the Tea Partiers of 2011 share the same basic dream: to defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs that have been created by bipartisan majorities since the New Deal. The people in Congress who knew those agencies and programs best and were most invested in making them work—the professional staffers, the CRS analysts, the veteran committee chairs—were not going to consent to seeing them swept away. So they had to be swept away.
Of course, all of this slashing and cutting has done nothing to actually help shrink the federal government. Real federal spending has increased 50 percent since 1995, in line with the growth of the U.S. population and economy. Meanwhile, Washington has fought two major land wars, added two large new entitlement programs (Medicare’s prescription drug benefit under George W. Bush, the ACA under Barack Obama), and created several new federal bureaucracies, ranging from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the gigantic Department of Homeland Security.
At the same time, as political scientist Lee Drutman of the Sunlight Foundation has noted, both the government and the issues it has to deal with have grown more complex. There are more contractors to manage, more stakeholders to liaison with, more technologies to adapt to, more industry-funded research studies to take account of. That, in turn, has made the jobs of congressional staffers, of keeping an eye on government and sorting through the ever-growing amount of information coming at them from lobbyists and constituents, far more difficult, even as their numbers have not remotely kept pace with the growth of government and K Street. In 2010, the House spent $1.37 billion and employed between 7,000 and 8,000 staffers. That same year, corporations and special interests spent twice as much—$2.6 billion—on lobbying (which excludes billions spent on other forms of influence) and employed 12,000 federally registered lobbyists, according to Sunlight Foundation.
Instead of helping to shrink the government, the gutting of congressional expertise and institutional capacity—what New America Foundation scholar and former congressional staffer Lorelei Kelly refers to as a “self-lobotomy”—has had two other effects, both of which have advanced conservative power, if not necessarily conservative ideals.
The first effect is an outsourcing of policy development. Much of the research, number crunching, and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits. This has strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation, and given conservative groups an added measure of influence over Congress, as the shutdown itself illustrates.
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