- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Congressional staffers may be a grumbling lot at any time, but they sounded an even more dire warning this week, saying their pay is so low, their budgets so slim and their lawmaker bosses so harried that the very workings of American democracy are at risk.

In a major report from the Congressional Management Foundation, staffers brushed aside worries about transparency and accountability, rating those less important to their jobs than having more time to deliberate, more access to expert knowledge and more resources to boost their skills and knowledge.

“We may be beyond a tipping point where there are just too many people, too much communication, too much pressure, and too many crises for Senators and Representatives to manage without some serious rethinking of congressional operations and capacity,” report author Kathy Goldschmidt wrote.

But several staffers told The Washington Times that the report was overheated and off base. They said Congress has extraordinary resources but lazy staffers don’t make use of them and instead outsource research and decision-making to lobbyists.

The report comes at a time when Congress‘ ability to get things done is under scrutiny.

After years of divided government, which took most of the blame for gridlock, Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House. Yet they have struggled to notch a marquee win.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week told a Rotary Club in his home state of Kentucky that President Trump had naively set timetables that Congress couldn’t meet, creating “excessive expectations” for lawmakers.

Mr. Trump and social media aide Dan Scavino Jr. fired back Wednesday on Twitter: “More excuses.”

This week’s report goes well beyond the immediate fights, though, and says Congress‘ ability to operate has been sinking for years under both major political parties.

After surveying nearly 200 high-level staffers, the Congressional Management Foundation report said a major problem is budget cuts that have trimmed committees, researchers and auditors, leaving Capitol Hill at a disadvantage and having to rely on expertise of the executive branch or the private sector.

At the same time, big decisions about issues, strategy and communications with voters have been concentrated in party leadership, leaving fewer chances for rank-and-file lawmakers to step out on their own.

Congress is receiving unprecedented amounts of information and outside pressure while the capacity of congressional staffs has declined,” the report concludes. “With Congress not functioning as expected, the trust deficit between citizens and legislators is growing, demonstrated in part by historically low congressional approval ratings.

The survey gauged the health of Congress by asking staffers to rate the importance of a number of legislative functions and then rate how well they met those goals.

The gap between importance and performance was telling, the study authors said.

Some 83 percent rated knowledge and skills of office staff “very important” to Congress — the most of any area — but just 15 percent were “very satisfied” with performance. About 81 percent said having access to nonpartisan experts within their branch was very important, but less than a quarter said they were very satisfied with what they have.

“Offices don’t have nearly enough money for a good legislative staff,” one House legislative director told the survey.

Far less important to the staffers were accountability and transparency — two areas that voters may value. Less than half of the staffers said being transparent to the public or allowing constituents a chance to hold lawmakers accountable for their performance was important.

Attempts this week to reach congressional committees that oversee Capitol operations were unsuccessful. The House and Senate are on extended summer vacations.

Some of the staffers’ complaints have been making the rounds for years. The modern Congress has always seen itself at a disadvantage versus the Executive Branch — though analysts say lawmakers bring much of that upon themselves by agreeing to transfer power and by boosting agency budgets while cutting their own.

But some staffers told The Times that the complaints cataloged in the report were ridiculous.

They said Congress has the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office and committees that are charged with overseeing nearly every facet of public life.

“In my experience, congressional staff were too busy going to coffee to do any legislative work and too lazy to tap into great resources like CRS,” said one longtime staffer who has worked in both the House and Senate.

“The survey findings suggest staff are more concerned with their personal resources and perks than they are with being transparent with taxpayers about how their money is being spent in Congress,” the staffer said.

Another staffer who has had experience hiring dozens of employees on the Senate side said the problem starts at the top, with lawmakers who have lost interest in the fundamental parts of their jobs: legislating and overseeing the expanse of government.

“It is absolutely true that many staffers are inadequate for the job, but each one serves at the pleasure of the member and can be replaced without cause,” said the Senate staffer. “It is also true more and more staff have little understanding of the role of Congress because Congress largely stopped performing those roles.”

Both staffers said many Capitol Hill employees aren’t chosen because of their expertise or desire for public service but because their families are large financial backers.

“You don’t have to hire a donor’s child to be your policy adviser,” the senior Senate staffer said.

The report said staffers are particularly chafed at a lack of funds.

Congress‘ budget has risen 30 percent since 1985, when measured in constant dollars. The Executive Branch, meanwhile, has grown fourfold and even the federal courts have a significantly larger budget than Capitol Hill.

Still, some of Congress‘ most effective members worked on the cheap. Before he retired, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, regularly returned a large chunk of his annual budget to the Treasury while becoming one of the more consequential lawmakers.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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