Congress is the “first branch” because the Founders intended the Republic’s national legislature to be “the fountain of all lawmaking authority and governmental action,” according to Kevin Kosar, vice-president for research partnerships of the R Street Institute.
Kosar’s comment came in his mid-January testimony before a hearing of the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress concerning the growing inability of the First Branch to fulfill its constitutional roles.
The cause of that growing inability is clear: Congress is starving itself of the most critical resources, especially experienced staff, to do its many jobs, according to Kosar.
“Demands upon Congress have grown immensely over the past century, and Congress has actually divested in its capacity over the past 40 years. In tandem, these divergent trendlines all but ensure that Congress will fall short of the expectations of legislators, staff and the public,” he told the committee.
There are currently approximately 20,000 congressional staffers serving on the personal staffs of members of Congress, Senate and House committees, and legislative support groups like the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Government Accountability Office (GAO).
These staffers do the grinding daily detail work of the legislative process, including much of the behind-the-scenes negotiations among competing members and lobbyists.
What is not sufficiently appreciated outside of Congress and the K Street lobbying domain is the fact that decisions staffers make long before their elected bosses see the final drafts frequently determine the key elements of legislation that becomes law for the whole country.
“These staffers do the grinding daily detail work of the legislative process, including much of the behind-the-scenes negotiations among competing members and lobbyists.
And yet, despite their importance to successful governance, Kosar points to a brace of data-points that demonstrate the severe shortage of staffers needed to ensure the ability of Congress to fulfill its constitutional obligations.
“In the past four decades, the U.S. population has increased by one-third and federal spending has increased sevenfold. Today, the U.S. government has more than 4 million civilian and military employees, and an annual budget in excess of $4 trillion,” Kosar testified.
“The executive branch has around 180 agencies, which administer untold thousands of statutes and programs. The U.S. government also funds, and to a degree directs, hundreds of thousands of contractors and subnational organizations,” he continued.
“Public policy has become much more complex. For example, the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was 32 pages long. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, which reauthorized the ESEA, was 670 pages long.
“The regulations that interpret and apply statutes are even more voluminous: The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the corpus of existing regulatory law, runs more than 180,000 pages.”
The heart of the problem is that, as the size of government and the concurrent demands on Congress have expanded exponentially, the resources available to the national legislature, particularly staff, have declined.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the dramatic plunge in committee staff in 1995, as seen in this chart Kosar presented to the panel during his testimony:
Note that the dramatic decrease in House committee staff that began in 1992 in both chambers under Democratic majorities, then accelerated with the election in 1994 of the first Republican Congress since 1952.
Senate Republicans initially increased committee staff but then staffing levels declined and have remained more or less constant in the years since.
Overall, committee staff counts have never fully recovered in the years since, though there was a brief increase on the House side in 2007, but it was gone within four years.
“It is worth noting that the loss of committee staff capacity is particularly problematic. Committees long have been the engines of policymaking in Congress,” Kosar testified.
“Many — but not all — committees have seen their staff levels decline and experience significant turnover. For example, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has government-wide oversight jurisdiction, has experienced a 30 percent reduction in staff since 2001. The median staff tenure on the House Homeland Security Committee is 3.4 years.”
As for overall congressional staffing levels, Kosar presented another chart during his testimony that vividly displayed the downward trend:
“Total staff between the two chambers peaked at 15,321 in 1991 and fell nearly 19 percent to 12,436 in 2015,” Kosar summarized for the committee.
“The decline was particularly acute in the House. Personal staff peaked at 7,606 in 1983 and numbered 6,030 in 2015, a reduction of nearly 21 percent. House committee staff hit 2,321 in 1991, and fell about 50 percent to 1,164 by 2015.
“Leadership offices in both chambers, meanwhile, increased their staff levels significantly. House leadership staff grew 58 percent (127 staff to 201 staff) and the Senate expanded its leadership staff cohort 63 percent (106 staff to 173).”