A report by the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Task Force Project on Congressional Reform finds that Congress desperately needs to enlarge its staff and improve pay and working conditions if it hopes to regain equal footing with the executive branch.
Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative, the issue of restoring the ability of Congress to go toe-to-toe with the executive branch is a constitutional priority. And the task force makes clear that expanding congressional staff and paying staff better is a key first step in that effort.
“Congress today is overwhelmed. After decades of self-imposed disinvestment in expertise and staffing, Congress lacks the resources and knowledge to stand on an equal footing either with the executive branch, or with the tens of thousands of lobbyists employed in Washington (many of whom are former staffers now earning multiples of their Capitol Hill pay),” the task force wrote.
“Congress today employs fewer staff aides than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Declines in staffing have been largest on committee staffs and at support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s principal repositories of policy expertise.
“On issue after issue, Congress’s available in-house expertise is inadequate to support fully-informed independent judgment of executive or lobbyist proposals, and certainly inadequate to lead in policy innovation.”
Thus, the report’s number one recommendation is:
“The Member Representational Allowance (MRA) should be increased and the cap on the number of staff employed in a member office should be lifted.
“In 2018, each member’s office was allocated (on average) $1.37 million, which offices are free to spend as they wish; they could hire up to 18 permanent employees, along with four short-term or part-time additional employees.
“Across-the-board MRA increases and removing the cap on the number of employees would give individual representatives the most discretion over how best to increase their own capacity. The obvious benefit of a straightforward across-the-board increase is that all representatives would benefit equally.”
“The Member Representational Allowance (MRA) should be increased and the cap on the number of staff employed in a member office should be lifted.”
The authors of the report, who represent a broad cross-section of think tank and academic experts on congressional management issues, acknowledge that there are immediate political and practical problems with increasing staffs.
“Such an approach has a few drawbacks. One is representatives may use the money to hire more communications staffers to boost their public visibility, rather than hiring policy experts who would add to the institutional capacity of Congress.
“For many representatives, this would be a perfectly rational investment. Given the current top-down organization of the House, few representatives have meaningful opportunities to participate in substantive policymaking.
“Thus, an investment in policy expertise might seem a waste. But having more representatives each polishing their individual brands through social media and television seems unlikely to strengthen Congress as an institution.
“Moreover, some representatives already do not take full advantage of their existing MRA, since representatives sometimes view the performative frugality of sending money back to the Treasury as good politics.
“We believe that it would greatly weaken the legislative branch to return to an institution which is primarily run through personal member-to-member relationships.”
“Voting for a direct increase in their own staff may also appear to create a political vulnerability, by creating an issue for a future challenger. A final concern is that increased staffing may distance members from one another, as staff-to-staff interactions replace member-to-member interactions.
“This, in turn, may make it less likely that enduring collaborative relationships will form among members. Members may end up spending more of their time managing their extensive staff “enterprises” and less time interacting with one another.
“While we see merit in this concern, we believe that it would greatly weaken the legislative branch to return to an institution which is primarily run through personal member-to-member relationships.
“Given the complexity and size of the national government – and the informational resources held by the executive branch and interest groups – members of Congress simply require extensive staff support in order to perform their jobs.”
Restoring Congress as an equal branch of the federal government is not a simple task and this report’s comments on the advantages and disadvantages of increasing staff sizes and compensation is just one illustration of several the document covers.
Individual senators and representatives may well be asking their aides in coming weeks about this 38-page report, so it makes sense for as many staffers as possible to be familiar with its contents.