Political Animal


June 07, 2012 3:00 PM Congress and Institutional Competence

By Ryan Cooper

The best thing I’ve read today on the legislative branch comes from a very good article in the Washington Times, of all places. It bemoans the plight of young, inexperienced, and overworked congressional staffers, who are paid in pencil shavings. The consequences are about what one would expect:

While senators make $174,000, staff assistants and legislative correspondents — by far the most common positions in the Senate — have median pay of $30,000 and $35,000, respectively, significantly less than Senate janitors and a fairly low salary for college graduates in a city as expensive as Washington…
It means that young workers have proximity to enormous power while surviving on a meager budget — dual forces that come together to push congressional staffers through the “revolving door” to highly paid K Street lobbyists. In the revolving door, former congressional staff and members use their personal connections and insider knowledge to attempt to pull the levers of power on behalf of a paying client. A former congressional staffer is among the most valuable assets a company desiring legislative change can buy…
But it also means that staffers are often forced to rely on lobbyists while they still work for Congress, sometimes for the purest of reasons: While lobbyists with decades of experience in energy policy or other arcane areas are common, such depth of experience is nearly nonexistent on Capitol Hill. Though 10 years of experience in a home-state office, which handles constituent services and other less stressful concerns, is not rare, a person with a decade of experience is few and far between in Washington.

There’s even a good section about Newt Gingrich’s boneheaded axing of Congress’ official science advisory agency:

As policy questions more frequently hinge on the nuances of technical matters, members of Congress are operating without the researchers and topical experts on which they have relied to cast informed votes.
With the shuttering of the Office of Technology Assessment, a 200-member congressional support agency that closed in 1995 under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, members who are largely lawyers and rhetorical masters are asked to differentiate between competing proposals that only scientists might be able to evaluate effectively.

When it comes to the private sector, conservatives are deeply invested in the idea that you have to pay people enough to attract good employees, especially at the tippy-top. If liberals complain about Jamie Dimon’s umpteen gazillion-dollar salary, some neckless lickspittle on CNBC will rush to point out that if they paid him even a quarter less, then by gum he will up and go Galt on us, quitting to run the other world’s largest bank, and the economy won’t have Dimon’s vitally necessary banking expertise.

I used to think that perhaps we could agree that, aside from debates about which things government should be doing, at least when we agree that it should be doing something (like, say, preventing disease outbreaks), it should do it as well as possible. But when it comes to the federal government, paying the people actually running the guts of the legislative machinery doesn’t seem to count next to the knee-jerk Republican hatred of government generally, and increasingly, any knowledge or expertise whatsoever.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • boatboy_srq on June 07, 2012 3:21 PM:

    The concurrent piece of this is the pointless whinging by the Teahadist horde about fat-cat public employees, and how "gubmint" cannot create jobs.

    My guess is that none of the congresscritters who keep all these subsistence-wage-for-Washington employees thinks any of them actually works, or if they do it's specifically in order to get one of those K Street jobs. Though I do expect that if somebody suggested that they do without all those staffpeople, the yowling from Congress would be audible all the way to Kochistan.

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 3:30 PM:

    "Fe" on them!!!

    Today's feckin' idjit Conservatives believe in free-market and faith-based governance.

    And they don't need any help from people who are knowledgeable, or have any expertise! Especially lowly staffers - who are there to be ogled, diddled, get coffee, and lie to the spouses when their bosses don't want to talk to them.

    Yup. Free-markets, and faith-based - that's what works best!

    And that the government that governs best, isn't a government at all, but a corporation or a church!
    OR BOTH!!!

    And, as for pesky little things like disease control, and any an all other petty problems - if the free-markets can't handle them, then surely prayer will!

    So, let us pray - for deliverance from these Dominionist Christian Corporate Fascist FECKIN' CONSERVATIVE IDJITS!!!

  • nitpicker on June 07, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Looks like somebody needs a union...

  • SecularAnimist on June 07, 2012 3:46 PM:

    Ryan Cooper wrote: "I used to think that perhaps we could agree that, aside from debates about which things government should be doing, at least when we agree that it should be doing something"

    The bought-and-paid-for corporate stooges who play "conservatives" on TV only want the government to do ONE thing: concentrate ever more wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority of ultra-rich, ultra-powerful, ruthless, rapacious, reactionary corporate oligarchs at the expense of everyone else.

    Which doesn't require much knowledge or expertise to accomplish, except the knowledge and expertise required to bamboozle weak-minded, gullible, mean-spirited dupes with pseudo-ideological bullshit so they'll vote for the phony "conservative" politicians.

    And they've got plenty of Koch-funded "think tanks" and the "right wing" media to handle that job.

  • Bloix on June 07, 2012 3:47 PM:

    Gingrich's elimination of OTA wasn't "boneheaded." The Republicans didn't like Congressmembers having an independent, non-partisan source of expertise. They wanted to make Congress more reliant on lobbyists. That was the whole point.

  • Josef K on June 07, 2012 3:50 PM:

    From nitpicker at 3:32 PM:

    Looks like somebody needs a union...

    Either the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and/or the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) should start organizing these poor sods. Whether or not it works is a different issue entirely.

  • stormskies on June 07, 2012 4:08 PM:

    In the end this is about recreating our country/ society into one of indentured servants that are utterly controlled and ruled over by a very small cadre of oligarchs who rule over everything.

    And, to get there, they depend on a vast amount of our fellow citizens being so stupid as to deny the very reality that will lead to their own servitude. And a media elite who have sold their souls to be among the media elite that megaphone the propaganda generated by the corporations that leads to that servitude.

    We are rapidly on our way to that reality now.

  • stormskies on June 07, 2012 4:13 PM:

    exhibit a......

    June 07, 2012 03:30 AM

    Ed Schultz on Workers Voting Against Their Own Economic

    After the disappointing and frankly frightening results in this Tuesday's Wisconsin recall elections for someone like myself who has been a decades long union member and what it might mean for the future of the union movement if this emboldens Republicans to try to get rid of every union on the country, and the real possibility of seeing them push for putting a national right to work law on the books, I was glad to see at least one person leading a discussion on what's happened where we've got the working class voting against their own economic interests, and that was Ed Schultz.

    If we had a few more discussions like this in our national media, rather than the constant union bashing we see instead, maybe more voters would be aware of the fact that pitting one group of workers against another just harms all of us. Sadly as Thomas Frank pointed out, this is something that's been going on for decades. And as E.J. Dionne noted, the severe decline in union membership on the United States has made it much easier for Republicans to play this game of divide and conquer with the working class.

    This segment hit home for me particularly hard because it mirrored a conversation I had with a co-worker earlier the same day, who was asking me what I thought about what happened in Wisconsin and all the money poured in there and wondering how we've got so many within our own ranks who are union members and who are happy to have the security of that union membership when it comes to everything from decent wages, to health and retirement benefits, and some recourse with safety issues on the job to not worrying about being fired if they dare to speak up about problems in the work place, and yet consider themselves part of this ridiculous AstroTurf "tea party" movement.

    Sadly I didn't have any good answers for him other than to make some of the same points made by Frank and Dionne here about the propaganda those members have been exposed to and the huge uphill battle we're facing to try to overcome that and the way unions are portrayed in the media.

    Here's part of the conversation from Schultz's show where he was more or less following up on a discussion he'd had on MSNBC earlier that day on Alex Wagner's show and the need for union leadership to be doing more to educate their members. I agree with the points he made. The question is how do unions use the limited resources they have to potentially follow up on them when their ranks are under assault, which means their finances are as well.

    SCHULTZ: What happened here? Is this another example of working class voters going against their own economic interests? What do you think?

    FRANK: Well, come on Ed. This is like... that's the story of our times. Right? Going back thirty, forty years. This is what happens again and again and again. But what's going on lately, okay, in the last two, three years with the conservative movement is something really, really interesting, okay?

    These guys have taken, as you know, a hard shift to the right, okay, and they've taken sort of the politics of say Herbert Hoover and made it the new politics for our hard times moment. We're in this terrible economic slump, this persistent economic slump that doesn't go away and they have made the sort of 19th century banker view of the world the remedy for all that ails us.

    SCHULTZ: Yeah.

    FRANK: It's an amazing accomplishment what they've done.

    SCHULTZ: It is amazing and they've got the money to do more of it.

    E.J. Dionne followed up with some really good points as well.

    DIONNE: But I think there's some real problems we progressives have to deal with because conservatives take advantage of them. One of them is the decline in confidence in government's capacity to improve p

  • paul on June 07, 2012 4:23 PM:

    When you're getting paid such low wages, it's also a no-brainer that other people are subsidizing you. Maybe rich parents, maybe all the better-paid people who take you out to lunch and dinner, maybe nonprofits who "help" you understand important issues.

  • SYSPR..OG on June 07, 2012 4:48 PM:

    'neckless lickspittle'...ah yes.

  • Peter C on June 07, 2012 4:57 PM:

    When staffers are paid so little, they are in the job for the influence. They should be paid more so they can be there for the quality of their work and not the backroom connections they must make to make up for the shortfall.

    @ CUND is correct; Congress functions so poorly because Republcians don't believe in governing; they only believe in ruling. We need to remember that we fought a revolution to get away from hereditary rulers and govern ourselves. Now, we're rebuilding dynasties on both sides because campaigns are so expensive. It's a lowsy way to pick our leaders. Fame is not virtue and the Son is not the Father.

  • Doug on June 07, 2012 8:12 PM:

    Bloix @ 3:47 PM nails it.

  • steverino on June 11, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Ryan Cooper is a General Assistant at the Washington Monthly...

    ...and no doubt looks with envy at the "overworked congressional staffers, who are paid in pencil shavings."

    At least in their careers they have the prospect of a future big payday, as opposed to the satisfaction of a pure heart and a Job Well Done.

    But regardless, Ryan, keep up the good work!

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