The amazing cover story in the current issue of the Washington Monthly is about how Republican lawmakers "made Congress stupid" by gutting Capitol Hill staff. The deliberate shift began with the Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s, when the new GOP majority went on a firing binge, getting rid of lawyers, economists, investigators, auditors, analysts, and perhaps most notably, subject-matter experts.
But it didn't end there. After the Republicans' 2011 wave, GOP lawmakers cut even deeper, "leading, predictably, to staff layoffs, hiring and salary freezes, and drooping morale" on Capitol Hill.
The ostensible point of this was nuanced. On the surface, Republicans wanted to score a public-relations win, showing they were "cutting big government" and starting with their own institution. Below the surface, however, conservatives thought this would help "defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs," leading to smaller government.
The result has been ugly, to put it mildly. Not only has the government gradually grown, but Congress has left itself ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of policymaking and governing in the 21st century. Almost by design, Republicans have ensured that Congress lacks the capacity to solve problems. (Of course, that doesn't mean the business of state stops, so much as it leads to increased pressure on the executive, independent agencies, outside groups, and states to find solutions without Congress.)
It's with this background in mind that a new USA Today report from Paul Singer and Jarrad Saffren deserves attention.
Members of Congress are putting your money where their mouths are. Since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in January 2011, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has led a cost-cutting effort that has trimmed staff for House committees by nearly 20%, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But the number of committee staff responsible for press and communications work has increased by nearly 15% over the same period, according to House spending records.
This speaks volumes.
In early 2010, Democratic-led House committees had 1,570 staffers, 74 of whom dealt with press or communications. In early 2014, the Republican-led House committees had shrunk the overall staff by roughly 300 people, while increasing the press/communications team from 74 to 85.
In 1997, when the House Oversight Committee was hunting President Clinton, it had 121 staffers, two of whom worked on media. In 2014, with the House Oversight Committee hunting President Obama, it has 108 staffers, 10 of whom work on media.
There is perhaps no greater evidence of the post-policy Republican Party. GOP lawmakers are, quite literally, less invested in governing and more invested in public relations. The legislative branch's priority isn't legislation; it's messaging.
Republicans have said the technological evolution in modern communications has necessitated a larger media staff, but it's a tough sell -- online messaging makes the process easier, not harder.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) spokesperson, Drew Hammill, told USA Today, "[W]hile the urgent needs of the American people are ignored by House Republicans, it isn't surprising that their Republican Committee chairmen are hiring more communications staff to spin their record of obstruction, dysfunction and distraction."
Then again, we don't appear to be getting our money's worth. Despite all the GOP aides committed to messaging, Congress' support is abysmal.
It doesn't have to be this way. A congressional majority that governed more and talked less might even be more popular.