Last week, FBI agent Peter Strzok sat before two House committees for 10 contentious hours as Republican lawmakers accused him of partisan bias in his work in the FBI. Observers of all political stripes — Republican, Democrat, neither — derided the hearings as a “made-for-TV spectacle” rather than a serious congressional inquiry. Even Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee — well known for conducting long-running hearings into the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi — lamented on “Face the Nation” that the hearings are a “circus” and a “freak show.”
And yet sensationalist congressional hearings are on the rise. Why?
The answer, in part, is that control of Congress shifts back and forth much more frequently than in the past — and so parties now focus on party branding and messaging as much as on lawmaking. As a result, committees spend a rising share of taxpayer funds on communications staffers at the expense of fewer aides with policy or investigatory responsibilities. No surprise, then, that recent investigations seem more like the circus than genuine policy or oversight work.
This is how we did our research
We created a data set of all staff who have served on House and Senate congressional committees from 2001 to 2017. We relied on public staffer employment records that committees submit quarterly to the House chief administrative officer, data that is subsequently verified by a nonpartisan for-profit organization called LegiStorm.
To analyze hiring trends over time, we used job titles associated within the records to identify committee aides across four different types of positions: policy, communications, senior and administrative.
We find two important trends in the data
First, consider the two committees that conducted the Strzok hearing: the House Judiciary and Oversight panels. Since 2001, the number of communications aides serving on the Judiciary Committee increased, while the number of policy-focused staffers has fallen by more than a third. There used to be about 25 policy-focused staffers for every communications aide. Now the ratio is closer to 5 to 1.
Similarly, on the Oversight Committee, communications hires are up and policy staffers are down. If you consider that the committee’s staffing has declined by 30 percent overall, you can see even more clearly that the committee is prioritizing communications.
We’re seeing similar trends across all House committees. On average, the number of communications aides on House panels has increased by about 40 percent since 2001, while the number of policy-focused aides has stagnated. Senior committee staff are down 15 percent over the same period. Many find this concerning because as Congress keeps cutting its senior staff, on Capitol Hill, organized interests and their lobbyists can increase their sway over lawmakers.
Senate committee staffing shows a similar pattern: a 20 percent increase in communications staffers, a 5 percent drop in policy staff and a roughly 30 percent decline in senior staff — even as committee staffing overall has shrunk by 15 percent.
Here are three reasons committees might be deploying staff like this.
Parties care as much about messaging as lawmaking
Many studies show the rising importance of partisanship in Congress — especially as the parties have polarized and control of each chamber has swung back and forth more often, leading to far more partisan competition. Because of these pressures, party and committee leaders use every tool in their procedural tool kits to advance their party’s political interests — including how committees deploy their staff.
As a result, hearings are less focused on incubating policy or conducting serious oversight — and become just another partisan lug wrench to portray the opposing party as incompetent or worse. Data from the Policy Agendas Project show that more committee hearings in recent decades are unrelated to policy.
Many committee chairs owe their gavels to party leaders
Committee chairs are increasingly selected based on how loyal potential chairs have been to fellow party members and their campaign coffers — instead of how long they have served on the committee. In return, party leaders expect chairs to pursue the party’s priorities. Prioritizing party messaging over policymaking — in part, through staffing — is one way for committee leaders to do so.
More show horses, fewer work horses
As scholars such as Richard Fenno have suggested for decades, lawmakers use their service on committees to advance their own goals. Declining numbers of policy-focused staff could reveal that many lawmakers are simply less interested in policymaking — even when their party controls the White House and Congress.
Of course, committees have long been made up of a mix of workhorses and show horses. Staffing trends seem to suggest show horses have crowded the other horses out of the stable. It’s hard to imagine that curiosity about policy led Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) to ask Strzok, “How many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her?”
These circuslike hearings are likely to continue
When Barack Obama was president, congressional Republicans — particularly in the House — used partisan hearings to achieve their messaging goals. These strategies appear to have been successful, as Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the presidency.
As our data indicate, however, these staffing priorities have continued unabated. Having perfected the strategy during the Obama years, Republicans may be unwilling to stop playing to the cameras. So long as lawmakers think these theatrics serve their party’s and their own electoral interests, the decline in serious oversight is likely to continue.
Image credit: Tatiana Belova