The federal government has seen a century of growth. In 1915, the government had only a handful of departments, 400,000 employees (half of whom worked for the U.S. Postal Service) and a total budget that, even when adjusted to 2009, amounted to just $11.7 billion.

Today, there are perhaps 180 federal agencies, although as Wayne Crews points out, nobody is entirely certain. The federal government employs 4.1 million civilian and military employees. Annual spending is about $3.9 trillion per year and growing.

But it’s not just the size of the federal budget and workforce that are expanding. Government policy has encroached into many more areas of life. In 1915, there was little environmental protection policy nor were there social welfare safety nets like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

One look at the either the hefty U.S. Code (the corpus of current federal law) or the 175,000-page Code of Federal Regulation (the corpus of current regulatory policy) offers a sense of the scope of federal activities. Nearly everything about you – the home you live in, the transportation you take, the food you eat and the medicine available to you – is governed by federal statutes and regulations.

Some shrug off this growth as natural. Civil society itself is larger and more complex. Drones did not exist a century ago; now, they do. Governments will develop new policies to contend with new problems.

Others have a less sanguine perspective. Leviathan – the biblical sea monster that served as the title and central animating metaphor of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ 17th century treatise on the social contract – is the name they use for today’s big government. More government makes for less freedom. One author estimates there are so many laws and rules that an average citizen breaks three laws each day.

However one feels about the size of the federal government, its growth inarguably has created an oversight problem. The U.S. Constitution set up a principle-agent relationship between Congress and the executive branch. Congress writes the laws, the agencies implement them and the legislature (the principle) is supposed to keep watch. The massive growth of government has made the task of oversight all-the-more challenging. There are so many agencies to track and so many complex programs and policies to comprehend.

The problem is compounded by a basic time-on-task discrepancy. Today’s executive branch is a perpetual-motion machine. The president is always on the job and agencies operate 52 weeks a year. Our national legislature: not so much. Certainly, congressmen are busy people. A survey by the Congressional Management Foundation suggests legislators work 70 hours per week. Unfortunately, very little of their time is devoted to holding hearings and studying policy efficacy. Members of Congress are in Washington only a few days each week, on average.

Sensibly, Congress long ago took action to bolster its oversight capabilities. In 1914, it created the Legislative Reference Service (later remade into the Congressional Research Service). Congress also established the Government Accountability Office (1921) and Congressional Budget Office (1974) and has bolstered and rearranged its own operations in 1946 and 1970.

Unfortunately, Congress has done little in the past 40 years to augment its strength. In fact, since 1985, Congress has reduced its staff and the staffs of the GAO and CRS. (CBO’s small staff size has crept up a bit.) Presently, Congress spends a mere $4.5 billion on itself and its various support agencies. That is 0.1 percent of total federal spending, which is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

This effort in self-diminution is an ill-conceived effort to show the public Congress can downsize government. It has not worked. Despite the cuts, the public still believes Congress is overstaffed. Congress also tends to pay most staff poorly and many leave Capitol Hill because they spend so much of their time tending to communications work, rather than policy. Further insult was added when some members of Congress tried to forbid their employees from getting help to buy health care.

Public administrators, citizens and members of Congress all say they want efficient, effective government. We will never have it unless the oversight problem is addressed. There is no way 535 members of Congress can oversee a $3.9 trillion government properly, even if they were in town seven days per week.

To improve oversight, there are two basic choices: Congress can greatly reduce the size of government to make it easier to oversee or it can increase Congress’ professional support staff. Neither Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich nor any other powerful conservative has been able to cut the size of government appreciably. Realizing that, the way forward is pretty obvious.

Featured Publications