Barely one in five Americans approve of the way Congress is operating. It is overwhelmingly clear that Congress needs to do a better job of understandingcomplex policy issues, being responsive to communications from the American people, and overseeing the 170-some agencies of the executive branch.
Thankfully, after decades of institutional decline, Congress is finally taking steps to revitalize itself. In January, the House created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to help bring the Legislature into the 21st century. Additionally, the House Appropriations Committee has advanced several important reforms — one of which includes allocating funding to restart the Office of Technology Assessment, which can help Congress make more informed decisions on complex science and technology issues like encryption, cybersecurity and gene editing.
Now, the action moves to the Senate. Hopefully the upper chamber will step up to the task of rebuilding our national Legislature; action is desperately needed.
Unfortunately, many conservatives still insist that we can’t afford to restore functionality to this essential institution — as shown by the recent party-line voteon the top-line legislative branch funding number. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to eliminate any legislative branch funding increases, despite the fact that capacity has not kept pace with increasing demands on the institution. (Consider this: The average member of the House of Representatives has 747,000 constituents to answer to, which is 15 percent more than they had in the year 2000.)
To understand this aspect of Republican liturgy, one must go back to 1994. Then, the Republican Revolution brought a conservative majority to the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. It’s platform, the Contract with America, promised to slash wasteful spending on Congress, which for decades had been a corrupt Democratic stronghold. Led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, the new Republican majority delivered, making deep cuts across the board within the legislative branch.
Much rot was cleared, but so too was much of Congress’ operational and oversight capacity. Since 1995, total legislative branch staffing has decreased by about 20 percent. Meanwhile, federal discretionary spending has increased by 37 percent. In 1994, the national debt was $4.7 trillion, or 64 percent of gross domestic product. Today, it stands at $24 trillion, or 106 percent of GDP.
Plainly, this practice of “cutting Congress first” has not reinforced limited government. Instead, it has handicapped congressional oversight of the executive branch, facilitated regulatory capture by increasing the influence of lobbyists, and led to worse policy outcomes by reducing the quantity and experience level of policy staff.
The Gingrich-era cuts didn’t reduce the size and scope of government; instead, they created an imbalance that allowed the executive branch to grow unchecked and run amok. The less funding Congress has, the less capable it is of reining in the executive officials and unelected bureaucrats in administrative agencies. The Government Accountability Office, for instance, saves $124 for every dollar spent on it. Nonetheless, Congress has cut GAO’s staff by 40 percent since 1994.
This brings us to the OTA, which Congress defunded in 1995. The agency cost $22 million ($37 million in today’s dollars) to operate, yet it helped lead to savings well in excess of its total lifetime budget.
Operating as a think tank within Congress, the OTA supported members and their staff as they tackled complex science and technology issues. Not only did the OTA’s experts help Congress make smarter policy choices, OTA’s work informed a number of major cost-saving decisions. These include the elimination of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, worth around $60 billion, and the evaluation of the Social Security Administration’s information-technology procurement strategy, which produced $368 million in savings.
In the absence of science and tech expertise on key committees and from institutions like the OTA, Congress has floundered. Public ridicule rained down after the recent congressional hearings with tech CEOs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. In another recent tech hearing, one congressman admitted to a panel of experts, “I can understand about 50 percent of the things you say.” Yet in response to efforts to revive the OTA, Gingrich told a reporter that staff can just Google it. Given that Google has been around since 1998, it is pretty clear that this approach isn’t working very well.
The OTA also helped rebalance power between executive agencies and the people’s representatives in Congress. As Rep. Charles Mosher, R-Ohio, remarked during the debate over the OTA bill in 1972, “Let us face it Mr. Chairman, we in the Congress are constantly outmanned and outgunned by the expertise of the executive agencies.” To properly conduct oversight, members must be able to verify and critically analyze what agencies are telling them — particularly when agency bureaucrats come asking for more money or expanded powers.
The Constitution established Congress as the first branch of government. Its decisions are supposed to guide government action and serve “We the People.” Our national Legislature cannot do either of these things unless it has the brains and capacity to decide wisely. Bringing back the OTA would be a good first step.
But beyond any given reform, Republicans must overcome their anti-government impulse and realize that investing in Congress is a necessary step to creating a leaner and more accountable government.
Image credit: MDOGAN