Con­gres­sional staffers re­port dire need for re­sources, raises — not trans­parency

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Con­gres­sional staffers may be a grum­bling lot at any time, but they sounded an even more dire warn­ing this week, say­ing their pay is so low, their bud­gets so slim and their law­maker bosses so har­ried that the very work­ings of Amer­i­can democ­racy are at risk.

In a ma­jor re­port from the Con­gres­sional Man­age­ment Foun­da­tion, staffers brushed aside wor­ries about trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, rat­ing those less im­por­tant to their jobs than hav­ing more time to de­lib­er­ate, more ac­cess to ex­pert knowl­edge and more re­sources to boost their skills and knowl­edge.

“We may be beyond a tip­ping point where there are just too many peo­ple, too much com­mu­ni­ca­tion, too much pres­sure, and too many crises for Sen­a­tors and Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to man­age with­out some se­ri­ous re­think­ing of con­gres­sional op­er­a­tions and ca­pac­ity,” re­port au­thor Kathy Gold­schmidt wrote.

But sev­eral staffers told The Washington Times that the re­port was over­heated and off base. They said Congress has ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sources but lazy staffers don’t make use of them and in­stead out­source re­search and de­ci­sion-mak­ing to lob­by­ists.

The re­port comes at a time when Congress’ abil­ity to get things done is un­der scru­tiny.

Af­ter years of di­vided gov­ern­ment, which took most of the blame for grid­lock, Repub­li­cans con­trol both cham­bers of Congress and the White House. Yet

they have strug­gled to notch a mar­quee win.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell this week told a Ro­tary Club in his home state of Ken­tucky that Pres­i­dent Trump had naively set timeta­bles that Congress couldn’t meet, cre­at­ing “ex­ces­sive ex­pec­ta­tions” for law­mak­ers.

Mr. Trump and so­cial me­dia aide Dan Scavino Jr. fired back Wed­nes­day on Twit­ter: “More ex­cuses.”

This week’s re­port goes well beyond the im­me­di­ate fights, though, and says Congress’ abil­ity to op­er­ate has been sink­ing for years un­der both ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Af­ter sur­vey­ing nearly 200 high-level staffers, the Con­gres­sional Man­age­ment Foun­da­tion re­port said a ma­jor prob­lem is bud­get cuts that have trimmed com­mit­tees, re­searchers and au­di­tors, leav­ing Capi­tol Hill at a dis­ad­van­tage and hav­ing to rely on ex­per­tise of the ex­ec­u­tive branch or the pri­vate sec­tor.

At the same time, big de­ci­sions about is­sues, strat­egy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions with vot­ers have been con­cen­trated in party lead­er­ship, leav­ing fewer chances for rank-and-file law­mak­ers to step out on their own.

“Congress is re­ceiv­ing un­prece­dented amounts of in­for­ma­tion and out­side pres­sure while the ca­pac­ity of con­gres­sional staffs has de­clined,” the re­port con­cludes. “With Congress not func­tion­ing as ex­pected, the trust deficit be­tween cit­i­zens and leg­is­la­tors is grow­ing, demon­strated in part by his­tor­i­cally low con­gres­sional ap­proval rat­ings.

The sur­vey gauged the health of Congress by ask­ing staffers to rate the im­por­tance of a num­ber of leg­isla­tive func­tions and then rate how well they met those goals.

The gap be­tween im­por­tance and per­for­mance was telling, the study au­thors said.

Some 83 per­cent rated knowl­edge and skills of of­fice staff “very im­por­tant” to Congress — the most of any area — but just 15 per­cent were “very sat­is­fied” with per­for­mance. About 81 per­cent said hav­ing ac­cess to non­par­ti­san ex­perts within their branch was very im­por­tant, but less than a quar­ter said they were very sat­is­fied with what they have.

“Of­fices don’t have nearly enough money for a good leg­isla­tive staff,” one House leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor told the sur­vey.

Far less im­por­tant to the staffers were ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency — two ar­eas that vot­ers may value. Less than half of the staffers said be­ing trans­par­ent to the pub­lic or al­low­ing con­stituents a chance to hold law­mak­ers ac­count­able for their per­for­mance was im­por­tant.

At­tempts this week to reach con­gres­sional com­mit­tees that over­see Capi­tol op­er­a­tions were un­suc­cess­ful. The House and Se­nate are on ex­tended sum­mer va­ca­tions.

Some of the staffers’ com­plaints have been mak­ing the rounds for years. The mod­ern Congress has al­ways seen it­self at a dis­ad­van­tage ver­sus the Ex­ec­u­tive Branch — though an­a­lysts say law­mak­ers bring much of that upon them­selves by agree­ing to trans­fer power and by boost­ing agency bud­gets while cutting their own.

But some staffers told The Times that the com­plaints cat­a­loged in the re­port were ridicu­lous.

They said Congress has the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice and com­mit­tees that are charged with over­see­ing nearly ev­ery facet of pub­lic life.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence, con­gres­sional staff were too busy go­ing to cof­fee to do any leg­isla­tive work and too lazy to tap into great re­sources like CRS,” said one long­time staffer who has worked in both the House and Se­nate.

“The sur­vey find­ings sug­gest staff are more con­cerned with their per­sonal re­sources and perks than they are with be­ing trans­par­ent with tax­pay­ers about how their money is be­ing spent in Congress,” the staffer said.

An­other staffer who has had ex­pe­ri­ence hir­ing dozens of em­ploy­ees on the Se­nate side said the prob­lem starts at the top, with law­mak­ers who have lost in­ter­est in the fun­da­men­tal parts of their jobs: leg­is­lat­ing and over­see­ing the ex­panse of gov­ern­ment.

“It is ab­so­lutely true that many staffers are in­ad­e­quate for the job, but each one serves at the plea­sure of the mem­ber and can be re­placed with­out cause,” said the Se­nate staffer. “It is also true more and more staff have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the role of Congress be­cause Congress largely stopped per­form­ing those roles.”

Both staffers said many Capi­tol Hill em­ploy­ees aren’t cho­sen be­cause of their ex­per­tise or de­sire for pub­lic ser­vice but be­cause their fam­i­lies are large fi­nan­cial back­ers.

“You don’t have to hire a donor’s child to be your pol­icy ad­viser,” the se­nior Se­nate staffer said.

The re­port said staffers are par­tic­u­larly chafed at a lack of funds.

Congress’ bud­get has risen 30 per­cent since 1985, when mea­sured in con­stant dol­lars. The Ex­ec­u­tive Branch, mean­while, has grown four­fold and even the fed­eral courts have a sig­nif­i­cantly larger bud­get than Capi­tol Hill.

Still, some of Congress’ most ef­fec­tive mem­bers worked on the cheap. Be­fore he re­tired, Sen. Tom Coburn, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, reg­u­larly re­turned a large chunk of his an­nual bud­get to the Trea­sury while be­com­ing one of the more con­se­quen­tial law­mak­ers.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

AIDE AID: Con­gres­sional staffers at­tended a 2013 hear­ing. Some are dis­miss­ing an au­dit ac­cus­ing some of their co­horts of not us­ing avail­able re­sources.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Con­gres­sional staffers lis­ten as Las Ve­gas Mayor Os­car Good­man (on the video screen) tes­ti­fies on Capi­tol Hill in 2008, be­fore a House Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

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