THE BIG LOBOTOMY: How Republicans Made Congress Stupid
A quick refresher: In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress's workforce. They cut the "professional staff" (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the "legislative support staff" (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker's office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research.
Of course, all of this slashing and cutting has done nothing to actually help shrink the federal government. Real federal spending has increased 50 percent since 1995, in line with the growth of the U.S. population and economy.
Today, the GAO and the CRS, which serve both House and Senate, are each operating at about 80 percent of their 1979 capacity. While Senate committee staffs have rebounded somewhat under Democratic control, every single House standing committee had fewer staffers in 2009 than in 1994. Since 2011, with a Tea Party-radicalized GOP back in control of the House, Congress has cut its budget by a whopping 20 percent, a far higher ratio than any other federal agency, leading, predictably, to staff layoffs, hiring and salary freezes, and drooping morale. Instead of helping to shrink the government, the gutting of congressional expertise and institutional capacity -- what New America Foundation scholar and former congressional staffer Lorelei Kelly refers to as a "self-lobotomy" -- has had two other effects, both of which have advanced conservative power, if not necessarily conservative ideals.
The first effect is an outsourcing of policy development. Much of the research, number crunching, and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits. This has strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation, and given conservative groups an added measure of influence over Congress, as the shutdown itself illustrates.
The second effect of the brain drain is a significant decline in Congress's institutional ability to monitor and investigate a growing and ever-more-complex federal government. This decline has been going on quietly, behind the scenes, for so many years that hardly anyone even notices anymore. But like termites eating away at the joists, there's a danger of catastrophic collapse unless regular inspections are done.