Congress stops its starvation diet
© Greg Nash

Congress can fulfill its constitutional responsibilities only when it has sufficient resources to do the job the framers of that document outlined in Article One of our Constitution. For too long, however, the engine of the “first branch” of our federal government has been running on empty. 

This past week, reversing a years-long trend of chronic underfunding, the House and Senate approved a Legislative Branch appropriations bill that puts Congress on a trajectory to restore its capacity to function and govern more effectively. Members of the Appropriations committees and the conference committee deserve gratitude and credit for their bipartisan efforts. 

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Despite its constitutional position, the money Congress spends on its operations compared to the Executive Branch agencies is miniscule, making up just one-tenth of one percent of all federal discretionary spending. Most of that spending goes toward maintaining congressional buildings and providing security for the thousands who work in and visit the Capitol complex every year. 

Nevertheless, the Legislative Branch budget has become a tempting political target. This year, in an unprecedented move, the Office of Management and Budget criticized the spending levels contained in the bill in the name of “the need to right-size the federal government,” despite the hefty increases slotted for Executive Branch departments and the already exponentially disproportionate size of its cost.

When House and Senate appropriations deliberations began this year, funding levels for the Legislative Branch had been stagnant for a decade. Numbers of experienced policy staff in personal and committee offices were hollowed out, and the salaries of those who remain eroded. The resulting staff attrition means Congress employs roughly three-quarters of the people it did in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the average House member represents approximately 200,000 more constituents, and each senator an estimated 1.6 million more constituents than they did 30 years ago. I am a fiscal conservative who believes efficiencies are necessary and responsible use of the taxpayer dollar essential, but Congress had cut through its fat, past the muscle and into its own bone. 

As a chief of staff in the House of Representatives for more than 25 years, I saw firsthand the personal toll funding shortfalls took on the dedicated, civic-minded men and women who are the lifeblood of the institution. Personal office budgets were cut by more than 20 percent during the last 10 years I served there. In the mid-2000s, I could budget to pay a highly-qualified legislative assistant $60,000 – no pittance, but an amount stretched by Washington’s high cost of living. By the end of my service in the House in 2015, I could afford to pay a similarly qualified staffer about $40,000. It’s hard to begrudge his decision to pursue more lucrative options. And it’s easy to understand how members and senior staff who are not independently wealthy are forced to choose between continuing to work in Congress and supporting a family or paying for a child’s college. Which would you choose?

Inadequate funding not only accelerates the revolving door from Capitol Hill to K Street – it also disempowers members of Congress and the constituents they serve by reducing their ability to perform their legislative and oversight duties. Agencies that support congressional research and draft legislation have shed hundreds of positions over recent decades, weakening institutional capacity to draft thoroughly informed legislative proposals on complex issues, leaving an increasing number of policy decisions required for implementation to the Executive Branch, and ceding further lawmaking authority to the Executive Branch. 

Weak capacity also limits Congress’ ability to conduct oversight. Congressional committees hold nearly half the hearings today that they did in 1995. Members and staff are more likely to rely on the external capacity of former staff now working elsewhere to draft legislative language, which can further erode public trust in our government generally and in Congress in particular.

The FY 2019 Legislative Appropriations package is a critical first step in restoring public trust in Congress. It begins to address issues of staff retention by authorizing a study of member and committee staff pay in comparison to Executive Branch and private sector equivalent positions, and examining ways to expand staff child care services. It directs the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study organizational changes that would restore expert institutional resources on science and technology policy. It increases the annual allowances House members can spend on salaries, office technology, and subscriptions in their personal offices and creates new full-time employee lines in the Congressional Budget Office and GAO. The conference committee also allocated money for congressional offices to pay interns, a crucial step to ensuring Americans of all means can take critical first steps toward a career in public service.

Members of both parties in both chambers restored some strength to our first branch of government this year. They did so out of the limelight, while facing unprecedented interference on this matter from the Executive Branch. The final product is a credit to these members, their staffs, and many former staff working to support their efforts. It’s an example upon which next year’s Congress can and should build.

Betsy Wright Hawkings worked as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill for over 25 years. She is currently Managing Director for Governance at Democracy Fund Voice, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping America build a stronger, healthier democracy.