For those of us who try to convince lawmakers and political observers that Congress desperately needs to invest in its own capacity, our arguments often sound a bit too theoretical to feel urgent.
After all, it’s tough to pinpoint specific instances where having more and better experienced congressional staff would have altered the course of a policy proposal. The rushed, closed, and opaque legislative process that ultimately resulted in the passage of the Senate tax bill early Saturday morning, however, provided such a rare illustration.
Anyone following the tax bill drama was likely aware that the legislation was hastily written and never in danger of winning any transparency awards. Negotiations between party leaders and GOP holdouts – at times resulting in substantive policy changes – were taking place on the Senate floor as debate on the bill was entering its final moments. In the end, the proposal came in at 497 pages (several of which had such last-minute edits that they were scratched out by hand) with no time for lawmakers or staff to read the bill in its entirety.
But an alarming tweet from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., truly pulled back the curtain on just how closed the policy process was, even to the senator and her colleagues. Sen. McCaskill’s tweet included a list of amendments to be included in the bill that the vast majority of senators hadn’t seen mere hours before casting their vote. Even more concerning, the list of amendments came not from Republican leadership, a congressional committee or anyone associated with authoring the legislation, but from lobbyists. In other words, D.C. lobbyists not only knew more about the contents of the bill than the lawmakers who were deciding its fate, but they also knew it earlier, and thus likely had more influence on its provisions.
Lobbyist influence on legislation is nothing new. However, the sheer volume of lobbyists involved in the tax overhaul dwarfed Congress’ own resources. According to a recent report by government watchdog group Public Citizen, 6,243 registered lobbyists can be found on lobbying disclosure forms involving taxation issues this year alone. This total represents 57 percent of all 2017 registered domestic lobbyists – more than 11 lobbyists per member of Congress. Over 4,200 of these lobbyists indicated that their work was specific to ‘tax reform.’
So, then, how did Congress’ staffing resources stack up, particularly on committees that house the issue-area expertise to advise lawmakers on tax issues?
In 2016, the Senate Finance Committee – the committee with jurisdiction over tax-related issues – and the Joint Committee on Taxation each employed 65 congressional aides to assist lawmakers in understanding, drafting and interpreting tax provisions. These 65 Senate Finance aides represent the lowest number of aides on the committee since 2002, down nearly 21 percent (from 82 aides) just two years prior and 37 percent (from 89 aides) from 2009.
This amounts to just 130 congressional aides versus as many as 6,200 lobbyists, many of whom represent such specific interest and push for such concentrated benefits that congressional staffers can’t possibly track or assess the impacts of each of their pet proposals. It’s not a fair fight — not even close.
This reality is even more chilling after subtracting the number of committee aides, such as communications and administrative staffers, who don’t possess relevant policy expertise to assist lawmakers with the nitty-gritty details of legislation. Factoring in these deductions makes the fight even more lopsided in favor of special interests.
When Congress is strapped for the expertise necessary to keep its members informed on legislative proposals, special interests will fill the information void, particularly when votes are forced under harsh time constraints. As it currently stands, lawmakers do not have the staffing resources that would allow them to fend off the thousands of lobbyists intent on pushing their provisions.
As leaders have increasingly chosen to draft legislation behind closed doors, increased staffing for rank-and-file members represents one of the most effective ways to help them become more involved in policy creation. Perhaps the frustration many Senators feel after casting their vote on Saturday without knowing exactly what the bill included will spark a conversation that results in greater investment in congressional capacity. It’s certainly well past time.