This year, Congress used the spending bill to invest in its own capacity

Greg Nash

Much media and talking head attention has focused on the size of the recent omnibus spending package. This is understandable — 2,741 pages and $1.5 trillion is a lot of money. Much commentary appropriately has cited what was included in the legislation (aid for Ukraine) and what was not (more COVID-19 spending).  

Almost altogether ignored is the investment Congress made in itself for fiscal year 2022. The bill includes $5.9 billion for the legislative branch, which is 11.8 percent more than last year’s appropriation.   

The cynical voter may grumble that Congress does not deserve more money. While this sentiment is understandable, it errs by conflating legislators with the legislative branch as a whole. Lawmakers are not, to be clear, appropriating more money for their own salaries.  

Instead, legislators are investing money in the people and agencies they need to perform their duties as elected officials.   

Take security, for example. People regularly threaten individual members of Congress, often by sending them threatening emails or making menacing phone calls to their offices. Some of these malcontents have come to Capitol Hill with weapons and explosives. And need I mention that the Capitol was pillaged a year ago by protestors, some of whom apparently wanted to hang elected officials? Accordingly, Congress appropriated $602.5 million to the Capitol Police, to hire new officers and to reorganize itself so that its operations are more transparent and effective.   

But security alone is not enough to enable Congress to perform its constitutional and publicly-demanded duties. Legislators need staff and nonpartisan advisers to help them do their jobs.   

Think about it: The average member of Congress is a lawyer or someone who did well in business or state politics. When they arrive in Washington, D.C., they quickly find themselves out of their depths. They are put in charge of funding and overseeing an executive branch comprised of around 180 agencies working on everything from foreign affairs to medical research to farm policy and infrastructure development. None of them know how to write bills, and certainly, none of them can handle the tens of thousands of letters, emails and demands for meetings from the bazillion voters they represent. (The average member of the House of Representatives has more than 700,000 constituents. The average senator represents 3.3 million individuals.)  

This is why Congress has staff who help them manage the crush of demands and get things done. Clerks and legislative attorneys who help draft bills and record votes, and staff who respond to requests from constituents who want help dealing with unresponsive executive branch bureaucracies. Then there are the various nerds who supply Congress with nonpartisan facts and figures and analyses and who inform Americans by posting bills and all sorts of other useful information on Congress.gov.  

Astonishingly, the legislative branch today has less staff helping Congress than it did 40 years ago when the government was smaller and there were 100 million fewer voters whom legislators were expected to serve.  

The recent omnibus aims to improve this situation a bit. It provides 21 percent more money to pay for members’ personal staff (who tend to quit after a couple of years due to low pay), and committee employees (who often leave Congress for higher-paying lobbying gigs). Helpfully, the law also puts an additional $65 million into the legislative branch support agencies: the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office.  

To be sure, more money alone is not going to “make Congress great again.” To meet the challenges of the 21st century, Congress’s internal organization and operations need to be reworked to better align the incentives of legislators and the demands of governance. In too many ways, Congress remains out of date, captive to ways of work that were crafted in the 1970s when it last revamped itself.  

But make no mistake, the omnibus spending bill’s additional investment in Congress is a good thing. It will help Congress up its game.  

The Constitution set up our national legislature as the first branch of government, and as a bulwark of liberty against executive power. Congress is the vehicle through which we the people are supposed to rule ourselves. We voters do ourselves no favors by shorting the legislative branch on the resources it needs for Congress to have any chance of performing its duties.  

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).   

Tags Federal government of the United States Legislatures Omnibus spending bill United States Congress United States House of Representatives

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