There are a lot of big dumb solutions out there. From a new constitutional convention, to reforming the electoral college, to doing “something” about “money in politics” there are many proposed solutions. I think these solutions make things way too complicated. We’re avoiding a much simpler fix. Give Congress More Money. The writers of the US Constitution thought the US Congress was the most important institution in government. There’s a reason they laid it out in Article 1. It’s the legislature, not the president or the courts that supposed to be doing the governing.
That’s not the way it works today. We are verging on worship of the office of the President, and we let the Judiciary make more and more of our laws. Over the past 22 years we’ve also systematically dismantled and starved the institutions that help our legislature compete. The results have been pretty straightforward. Congress is useless. If we give it some more money, and make it useful again, we may find ourselves with a functioning government again. This video lays out the case.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Ladies and Gentlemen, Congress needs more money. Now I’m not talking about the Federal government. I remain committed to the idea that Washington, DC needs a lot less money. But the Senators, Representatives and staffers that make up the US Congress? They need a lot more money.
I understand that this is a hard pitch. In opinion polls the US Congress is typically about as popular as a car crash. We see them as corrupt and most importantly ineffectual. Today I will talk about why Congress is so useless.
The fact is that they have lost an arms race. Around the time of the Civil War, our congress people did not have much in the way of staff. Now each individual member of Congress has dozens of staff. In 2015, Each Senator averaged 39 staffers and each Representative averaged 14 staffers. This may seem like a lot. It’s not. To truly judge the growth in congressional staff you’ve got to compare it to the estimated 14 million people who now work for the president, directly or indirectly.
The Founding fathers didn’t expect much of elected officials. But they did expect them to compete. That’s how checks and balances are supposed to work. The president has his interests, plans and judgement, and each of the hundreds of congresspeople has their interests plans and judgements as well. It’s supposed to be a fight. Congress lost this fight a long time ago. The President can still come to Washington, DC with some small hope that he will be able to change things. Senators and Representatives can’t. It’s the work of a career to even begin to understand the workings of a single federal agency or department. And everybody working for that agency or department has an interest in limiting a Congress person’s understanding. Workers and lobbyists in Washington, DC just want more money out of congress, whether or not they deserve it.
Back before the civil war, if a member of congress wanted to know what a government agency was up to, they could probably walk across the street and ask the guy in charge of it. In 1850 there were only 47,000 people working for the federal government, and most of those people were soldiers and postal workers.
This is not the case today. Officially, the US federal government only employs around 4 million people, but this is deceptive. Advocates of big government love to claim that this number hasn’t gone up by much since the 1960s. This is one of those things that is true but isn’t true. Since at least the Reagan administration Washington, DC has been hiding its true size by shifting more and more of its activities to the private sector.
Nobody really knows how many people work in the private government sector but everybody assumes it far exceeds the number of official civil servants. We brought the private sector into government because people were angry at unfireable public servants. In theory government contractors are easier to fire if they screw up, but this rarely happens in practice. It’s a lot harder to tell what’s going on now, government contractors aren’t all that transparent, but we do know that there are a lot of mansions going up in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.
Hey There! My name’s Ken Asbury! I make two million dollars a year, to run a company you’ve never heard of, that ate up around 3 Billion of your tax dollars in 2016! Yay Private Sector!
Congress is bad at its job because it has no idea what is actually going on with the government it has created. They and their handful of staffers are running around like crazy, trying to work for their constituents, raise money, campaign, manage the media, and then as a fifth priority, maybe run the country. It’s not working. Take today’s Republicans as an example. They control the entire government. They were voted in to repeal and replace Obamacare and fix the tax code. It’s become clear that they’re incapable of doing either in any meaningful way.
Through the mid 20th century Congress built some tools to deal with this issue. The staffs of each member of congress grew steadily. The Congressional Research Service, Congress’s think tank, was established. The Government Accountability Office, the Library of Congress, and the Congressional Budget Office were set up or grew mightily. An Office of Technology Assessment, filled with scientists and engineers was put together to deal with the growing technical issues Congress had to face. These few offices, employing less than 8,000 people today are our only effective tool for controlling our government. They steadily grew until the mid 1990s.
Then the Republicans came to power. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America simple mindedly decided to attack the only wing of government that people in Congress knew well. Their own. The Office of Technology Assessment was scrapped entirely. Staffing at the GAO, and the library of Congress was dramatically cut. The CBO hasn’t grown since the 1990s. And staffing members for individual congress people are still falling.
Keep in mind all that has happened since 1995. 9/11 gave us permanent war and vast new government bureaucracies. Both the Bush and Obama administrations gave the federal government vast new powers over the environment, finance, healthcare and education. And Congress’s ability to deal with this mess has fallen dramatically. The information that they get comes from lobbyists, or the government agencies that only know how to ask for more money.
Conservative Republicans have an instinct that I agree with. The Government shouldn’t be this big. But their strategy of making the US Congress, our best tool against government bloat, weaker doesn’t make any sense at all. Next time I’ll talk about why more money for Congress should be a bipartisan priority.
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