Congress’ tendency to cannibalize itself


The following blog post was co-authored by R Street Governance Project Director Kevin Kosar.

Why is Congress loath to increase its staff, and sometimes eager to cut it? Anthony J. Madonna and Ian Ostrander take up this question in a recent conference paper, sardonically titled “A Congress of Cannibals: The Evolution of Professional Staff in Congress.”

The authors analyze history and data in an attempt to determine why, despite a one-third growth in the U.S. population and sevenfold increases in government spending since 1979, the numbers of committee staff, support staff and personal staff devoted to policy have fallen and staff wages have been cut. The staffing data, as published previously on R Street’s site (here and here), are indisputable. (Both chambers’ leaders, it is worth mentioning, have increased their staffing.)

Madonna and Ostrander offer an account of the history of congressional debates over staff numbers and expenditures, from the slow and steady increases since the 1840s to the recent decline. Covering the reform bills of 1893, 1918, 1939, 1946 and 1970, among others, they note certain patterns.

One thing they discern is that electoral calculations affect Congress’ willingness to staff itself. The authors note that in a 1942 speech, then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., declared:

The thing that is wrong with Congress is fear; not fear of lobbies, not fear of criticism, not fear of the dead cats that are thrown at us ever so often; it is a fear that I observed years ago of doing something for ourselves as an institution.

Some congressmen also have claimed that more staff would lead to more bills being introduced, a dubious proposition. More recent debates over congressional staff, such as those that accompanied former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the Affordable Care Act, reveal that members see value in positioning themselves as favoring less staff.  Cutting these “bureaucrats” proves one is not an entrenched D.C. fat cat.

For their part, staffers have few, if any, lobbyists willing to go to the mat for them. The authors point to the congressional support for the 2013 Vitter amendment, which would have eliminated the subsidies to assist congressional staff to purchase health insurance on ACA exchanges, as indicative of the congressional willingness to cannibalize its staff. Losing the subsidy exacerbates the compensation slide Hill staffers are experiencing. (See here for House and here for Senate pay data.)

Coupling recent history with public polling, Madonna and Ostrander are pessimistic. More than 90 percent of the public who had an opinion on the matter agree that Congress has too much staff, despite the public’s gross underestimation of actual staff numbers. Only 2 percent of American surveyed know staff has decreased recently, and 85 percent erroneously believed staff has increased. Put all these data points together and the probability that members of Congress will increase staffing levels looks slim.

Despite the disincentives, Congress has bolstered its manpower previously. Madonna and Ostrander’s analysis indicates the most successful argument in favor of staff increases is the need for the legislative branch to balance the power of the executive branch. With the legislative branch now more dwarfed by the executive branch than ever, one wonders if today’s Congress can transcend its ideological warfare and see an institutional interest in strengthening itself.


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