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Congress just doesn’t know enough to do its job well. Here’s why.

- November 14, 2017
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) makes calls in his ceremonial office on the first day of the 115th Congress, Jan. 3. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There is one thing that a deeply divided America agrees about: Everyone is angry at Congress. Approval ratings are in the single digits. Citizens feel frustrated and ignored by the democratic process. Civic discourse has degenerated into shouting matches or worse.

What Americans might not realize is that many who work for Congress feel just as frustrated.

The recent report “State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and Senate,” by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the working of Congress, describes the results of a 2016 survey of 184 senior staffers in the Senate and the House of Representatives. This research reveals an institution suffering from decades of neglect and erosion. The Americans who work on the front lines of our democracy also long for a Congress that is informed, responsive and effective, but Congress barely has the capacity to stay afloat. If we want to have a resilient democracy in the 21st century, we need a Congress that is much better able to absorb, organize and use knowledge to make laws and policy.

Congress is suffering from a huge knowledge gap.

The report examines the results of two kinds of survey questions. First, staffers were asked how important a given feature of Congress was: “In your opinion, how important are the following for the effective functioning of your chamber?” Second, they were asked how happy they were with how Congress is doing: “How satisfied are you with your chamber’s performance in the following?”

We can figure out the places where something is wrong by looking at features where there is a big gap between the percentage who said something was “very important” and the percentage who were “very satisfied.” Most glaring is that senior staffers generally felt it was “very important” that staff knowledge, skills and abilities are adequate to support lawmakers’ official duties, but only 15 percent were very satisfied with their chamber’s performance. In a knowledge-based workplace like Congress, staff are critical for understanding and shaping public policy. If their skills are not up to the task, our democracy cannot function at its highest level.

Democracy also suffers when members of Congress do not have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation. This is the core function of Congress, yet only 6 percent of the senior staffers surveyed were “very satisfied” with their chamber’s performance.

Indeed, Congress has abandoned the deliberative process. The summer’s secretive health-care bill was the rule rather than the exception. In recent years, Congress has held about 50 percent fewer hearings than in the 1990s. Hearings are opportunities for Congress to engage and inform lawmakers (who are assigned to committees) as well as citizens (as witnesses) with the policy process. A dearth of hearings makes meaningful learning, policy discussion, and holding power accountable harder.

Senior Congressional Staff are Dissatisfied with Important Benchmarks of Congressional Performance
Very Important Very Satisfied Gap
Staff knowledge, skills and abilities are adequate to support Members’ official duties 83% 15% 68%
Members have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate policy and legislation 67% 6% 61%
Members and staff have access to high-quality, nonpartisan policy expertise within the legislative branch 81% 24% 57%
The technological infrastructure is adequate to support Members’ official duties 60% 6% 54%
The chamber has adequate capacity and support (staff, research capability, infrastructure, etc.) to perform its role in democracy 62% 11% 51%
The chamber’s human resource support and infrastructure is adequate to support staffers’ official duties (e.g., training, professional development, benefits, etc.) 49% 5% 44%
Source: State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and Senate, Kathy Goldschmidt, Congressional Management Foundation, 2017.

How Congress is organized makes the problem worse

Both political parties now use committee memberships as campaign currency, downplaying the importance of knowledge in the policy process. Instead of being distributed based on seniority, geographic focus and expertise (i.e., a farmer or a doctor) — relevant factors to public policy knowledge — the best committee assignments are awarded to those who raise the most money for the party.

This makes it far harder for Congress to intelligently consider the legislation before it. Over 6,000 bills are before Congress. In 1994 — when congressional resources started to decline — Congress had a generous capacity for knowledge creation. Now, it has only a handful of weeks to complete its mandatory funding bills and usher through its own policy priorities.

The most recent legislative branch budget flatlines expert capacity and raises the budget for security of members. This is an understandable response to real fears. Members of Congress have received 950 threats so far this year. One was shot and terribly wounded in June. However, skimping on trustworthy information has consequences. Despite valiant internal efforts, Congress lags in adopting new technology and has had to prioritize protecting safety and keeping systems secure from malicious hackers, rather than bolstering institutional capacity to access, understand and process information.

Many of the root causes of this situation are nonpolitical. Members of Congress have hundreds of thousands — even millions — more constituents than their counterparts did just a few decades ago. Even so, today’s Congress is working with 45 percent fewer expert personnel than in the 1970s. That means lawmakers are often missing trusted, unbiased, seasoned expert advisers in the rooms where decisions are made.

This gap is exacerbated by junk news and malevolent information that can infiltrate decision-makers’ information streams almost as easily as the public’s. Today, House and Senate offices are also overwhelmed by a tsunami of incoming information. The monetization of expertise adds to this maelstrom, thanks to vastly more money spent on lobbying and public relations.

It is hard to be sure that improving Congress’s knowledge infrastructure would make it more popular with voters. Nonetheless, there is a vast disparity between the huge job that Congress is expected to do, and the skimpy resources with which it is expected to accomplish this job. There is bipartisan agreement among staffers that they need major change if Congress is to work efficiently and effectively.

Kathy Goldschmidt is this report’s primary author. She is director of strategic initiatives at the Congressional Management Foundation.

Lorelei Kelly directs the Resilient Democracy Coalition. She is a senior fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She is @loreleikelly on Twitter.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network funded the research underlying the article or is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.