The beginning of the 117th Congress has been anything but typical. But one thing about this Congress probably won’t be much different from the last one and nearly every session for the past few decades: Our nation’s representatives are unlikely to tackle many of the nation’s pressing problems.
By many metrics — days in session, hearings held, bills passed, budgets adopted — Congress is grossly underperforming. Some of the reasons are obvious, like the narrow partisan division in the chambers and the polarization of the parties. Too many members of Congress spend too much of their time striking partisan poses on television and social media.
But another problem, critical and little appreciated, lurks behind the scenes: insufficient congressional capacity. In short, the demands on our national legislature keep growing, but its ability to meet them has declined.
Over the past 40 years, the day-to-day demands on Congress have skyrocketed. By law Congress must fund and oversee 180 federal agencies and 4 million civilian and military employees that administer thousands upon thousands of policies and programs affecting the public. In 2019, federal spending was $4.4 trillion; in the pandemic year of 2020, spending was $6.6 trillion, which is seven times higher than it was in 1980 and a dozen times larger than the outlays by the world’s largest corporation, Walmart. The Senate is obligated to review and vote upon 300 executive branch nominees and thousands of nominees to independent agencies, the military, and the service academies (e.g., the US Naval Academy).
The immensity of federal activity also leads to more demands from the public. In the average year, Americans — whose numbers have swelled 45 percent since 1980 — write, email, or otherwise contact Congress between 25 million and 30 million times, which amounts to more than 46,000 communications per legislator. And that is to say nothing of the escalating demands from interest groups and lobbyists to meet with legislators.
All this time, Congress should have strengthened its capacity with investments and upgrades in its people, technology, and internal structure and processes. But it did not do that; instead, Congress thought the public would be pleased if it cut its own capacity. Today, legislators have fewer employees (10,000) than they did in 1980 (11,000). Congressional committees, which are supposed to be the engines for policymaking and oversight, also have fewer staff (3,100 in 1980 and 2,300 today).
Meanwhile, staff turnover on the Hill is high because of working conditions and compensation that are not competitive with private-sector or even executive-branch jobs. Congress also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and other legislative-branch support agencies that help legislators make policy and conduct oversight (from 11,400 in 1980, this figure is down to 7,000 today).
This is no way to run a country. We face complex and high-stakes problems, like an ascendant China and cybersecurity attacks that can cripple our infrastructure, and our legislature has ever fewer people dedicated to analyzing and addressing them.
Legislators and staff lament the inadequate technology they have to do their jobs. They lack software to track changes in legislation and have to rely on beepers to tell them when to vote. They are bewildered at the complexity of the processes to budget and legislate, and they are dismayed that oversight hearings waste large swaths of time on members delivering speeches and preening for television cameras.
Like a restaurant, a factory, or any company, Congress can achieve only as much as its organizational capacity permits. It has not enacted major reforms of its operations since the 1970s. There is nothing stopping legislators from upgrading Congress to meet the demands of the 21st century. A small improvement has been made recently: There’s now better job training for new legislators and their staff. But these efforts have not addressed the really big issues, like the staffing shortage or Congress’ outdated committee systems and legislative procedures. To get the representation we deserve, we Americans must goad our overwhelmed senators and representatives to increase Congress’ capacity.
Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform.” Follow him on Twitter @kevinrkosar.