As Congress writes spending bills that attempt to implement the first year of its budget resolution, it is clear that the legislative branch intends to continue operating with one hand tied behind its back.
On June 12, 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the fiscal year 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which would cut funding for the legislative branch by 17 percent from inflation-adjusted FY 2010 levels. The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which makes roughly the same overall funding cuts as the Senate bill. These cuts may seem like a good way to score cheap political points at a time when Congress is deeply unpopular, but in the long run, they only increase congressional dysfunction and make the federal government less efficient and responsive to the American people.
The fact remains that the legislative branch includes much more than just members of Congress. When members vote to slash legislative spending, they undermine the professional staff and independent agencies that make it possible for Congress to oversee federal programs and understand complex policy questions. As funding and staffing levels for these legislative branch institutions have declined, Congress has become increasingly dependent on privately funded lobbyists and outside policy experts.
Cutting legislative branch funding makes Congress incompetent
Ever since the mid-1990s, and especially in the past few years, Congress has chosen to hollow out the very institutions on which it relies to function effectively. A 2014 essay by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards describes how these kinds of funding cuts have “made Congress stupid” by reducing the quality of research, analysis, and advice that members of Congress can expect to receive. While the most recent cuts are especially extreme, they are only the latest example of a trend that began when Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became speaker of the House in 1995.
According to Glastris and Edwards, former Speaker Gingrich weakened congressional committees to increase the power of party leaders in Congress. Professional committee staff—policy experts who often work for the entire committee and tend to be less partisan than individual members’ personal staff—were hit especially hard, with the number of staffers falling by more than one-third. The quality and quantity of committee hearings to oversee federal programs fell dramatically after the cuts, especially in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees where lawmakers are supposed to go line by line through the federal budget to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent.
Although cuts to legislative branch appropriations have an outsized impact on Congress’ ability to function, they have a microscopic impact on the overall federal budget. In FY 2010, before the most recent round of budget cuts, the legislative branch consumed just 0.1 percent of total federal spending. Ironically, these cuts make it harder for members of Congress to know how much their legislative proposals will cost since those estimates come from the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO—a nonpartisan agency within the legislative branch. The recent House legislative branch appropriations bill cuts CBO funding by 5.6 percent from its inflation-adjusted FY 2010 level, while the Senate bill prescribes an 8.7 percent cut.
The House and Senate legislative branch appropriations bills may also inadvertently increase budget deficits by cutting funding for the Government Accountability Office, or GAO—an independent agency within the legislative branch responsible for inspecting federal programs to identify waste, fraud, and abuse. A Center for American Progress analysis of the 2010 GAO strategic plan found that every dollar spent by the GAO in FY 2009 returned $15.20 to the federal government from situations in which “agencies acted on GAO information to improve services to the public.” When including cases for which GAO analysis may have been one of several factors responsible for new laws, regulatory changes, and government-wide reforms, this return on investment increased to $80 for every dollar spent at the GAO. The House’s FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill cuts the GAO budget by 15.4 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level, while the Senate bill cuts GAO funding by 14.9 percent. If every $1 cut from the GAO equates to $15.20 of unexposed waste, fraud, and abuse, cuts of this magnitude could result in about $1.4 billion in missed opportunities for government savings, or between $7 billion and $8 billion based on the larger return-on-investment ratio of 80 to 1.
Even for conservatives who want a smaller federal government, Glastris and Edwards note that “making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller.” It just makes government less effective.
Cutting legislative branch funding strengthens special interest groups
The brain drain from the legislative branch also contributes to the increasing power of lobbyists, corporations, and special interest groups, as documented in a 2015 essay by Lee Drutman and Steven Teles. These entities often employ former congressional staffers in order to use their familiarity with the legislative branch to advance the agendas of private interests rather than those of the American people more broadly. Poor compensation and insufficient overall funding has, according to Drutman and Teles, made it increasingly difficult for the legislative branch to attract and retain top talent. Funding cuts and staff reductions over the past two decades thus not only hurt Congress’ ability to run smoothly but have also resulted in Congress’ increasing reliance on outside groups.
A recent Politico article documented how special interest groups staffed by former congressional aides influenced legislation that would reform how the military makes purchases from defense contractors. As a former Senate staffer who now works for the National Defense Industrial Association explained, many provisions in the legislation “were tightly aligned and in some cases were word-for-word adaptations” of recommendations from his organization. Politico reported that the legislation “could end up boosting company profits — at the expense of taxpayers.” Even if the defense industry is pushing provisions that are in the public’s best interest, this example highlights the extent to which Congress relies on special interests to shape public policy.
One reason that lawmakers turn to outside policy experts is that Congress’ publicly funded in-house think tank—the Congressional Research Service, or CRS—has lost about one-fifth of its staff since 1993. The House and Senate legislative branch appropriations bills both cut CRS funding by 14.2 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level. To be sure, privately funded think tanks can make important contributions to improve public policy, but the neutral policy experts at CRS are essential advisors for Congress. As Drutman and Teles warn, Congress cannot “push back against the claims of the mobilized and wealthy in the name of the unmobilized … if its capacity to collect and process information has been systematically dismantled.”
The cuts in the legislative branch appropriations bill are just one small piece of the larger problem caused by Congress’ decision to limit nondefense spending to the levels imposed by the automatic sequestration cuts from the Budget Control Act of 2011. Other FY 2016 appropriations bills would cut housing, transportation, clean energy, and additional domestic priorities. Collectively, these examples provide further rationales for why lawmakers must increase spending limits above sequestration levels.
It is long past time for Congress to make governing a priority. The notion that members of Congress can be effective legislators while keeping one hand tied behind their backs is pure folly. If Congress wants to gain back some respect from the American public, it should start by investing in its own competence.
Harry Stein is the Director for Fiscal Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ethan Gurwitz is a Research Assistant with the Economic Policy team at the Center.