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Congress must modernize itself

Congress must modernize itself
© Stefani Reynolds

Congress remains closely divided after neither party won a mandate in the election. It is almost as if Americans want both sides to reach across the aisle. The great news is that the federal government was set up to do that. Congress is where “we the people” have our say in a messy process where different interests can be reconciled. We know that this is possible because we have navigated tumultuous times before. The bad news is that Congress is highly dysfunctional right now. Its capacity has not kept pace with the demands of a diverse nation and an elaborate world.

Lawmakers face schedule conflicts that leave them spending more time in transit than in key committee hearings. They have outdated technology along with fundraising and media incentives that stimulate them to offer partisan talking points rather than embark on building serious legislation. Americans have noticed as recent surveys demonstrate that Congress has a dismal approval rating that hovers around 20 percent.

Whether our democracy proves resilient and able to work for the people is up for debate. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which was created almost two years ago, was tasked with investigating and improving legislative operations. Despite gridlock in Congress, this bipartisan panel, with six Democrats and six Republicans, issued nearly 100 unanimous recommendations to make the branch more functional, accessible, transparent, representative, and technological.

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These recommendations were an excellent start toward helping Congress better fulfill its constitutional role. But much more has to be done. Given its limited time, the panel focused on solutions that had strong consensus among members. There is a greater task at hand with how to tackle more controversial, but just as necessary, systemic issues in Congress.

One of the issues is staff retention. The number of staff on Capitol Hill has fallen over the last two decades, leaving Congress unprepared to tackle the thorny crises of our nation. Fewer of these staff have the expertise to remain competitive with the private sector or even the executive branch. From 1977 and 2016, the number of House staff grew by under 7 percent despite higher demands and 100 million more constituents. In 2016, the House had just 9,420 staff and the Senate had 5,750 staff, slim numbers relative to firms that employ hundreds of thousands of workers.

Perhaps the best and most recent illustrations of the “staff gap” were the hearings held by Congress over internet platforms. Members revealed a shockingly minimal understanding of social media and the digital world. Given the average age of members of Congress, a lack of sophistication may not be surprising, but it has left our nation with public policies that are not speaking to the moment. This became evident in the election as disinformation on the internet became a dominant subject. Constituent demands have widened, and Congress has not kept up.

Most current legislative staff are young and have less expertise, since pay levels remain low while time demands remain high. It is now rare to find staff who spend a decade on Capitol Hill. The average tenure is just over three years, and 60 percent of staff is under age 35. This means that it is often industries and special interests that step in to advise members of Congress on legislation instead of their own staff. Indeed, many staff on Capitol Hill are often convinced to join the ranks of those lobbying shops, where pay levels and time demands are more favorable.

Many of the problems that prevent the House from fulfilling its duties also haunt the Senate. It makes all the sense in the world for the two chambers to form a joint panel to address capacity issues. Each body should realize the urgency of the task before them to regain even a modicum of trust in the government and most notably in the legislative branch.

Failure to renew the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress would be a grievous mistake. As the bipartisan panel with the knowledge and experience needed to address efficiency, it has demonstrated that it is capable of dealing with thorny issues and driving the reforms that will benefit Congress and Americans. But it needs more time.

Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One based in Washington.