This month's Washington Monthly cover story about how Republicans made Congress stupid is disturbing and fascinating all at once.
And yes, the result of their deliberate effort to obliterate their own staff funding means that lobbyists and think tanks like Heritage Foundation are now in charge of policymaking instead of the people we elected to take care of that particular task.
It goes like this: Conservatives cut their staffs and then puff up, go home and tell their constituents about what great cost-cutters they are. Then this happens:
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 is this:
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. While Congress continues to devote what limited investigative resources it has into the fished-out waters of the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi “scandals” (thirteen Benghazi hearings in the House alone, with a new select committee launched in May), just in the last year we’ve witnessed two appalling government fiascoes that better congressional oversight might have avoided: the botched rollout of the health insurance exchanges and the uncontrolled expansion of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. (Fun fact: while annual federal spending on intelligence has roughly doubled since 1997, staff levels on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have actually declined.) Debacles like these, by undermining the public’s faith in government, wind up perversely advancing the conservative antigovernment agenda—another reason why many Republicans don’t worry much about the brain drain on the Hill. But the rest of us should.
We have Newt Gingrich to thank for rolling this particular boulder downhill:
Gingrich’s first move in 1995 was to dismantle the decentralized, democratic committee system that the liberals and moderates had created in the 1970s and instead centralize that power on himself. Under his new rules, committee chairs were no longer determined by seniority or a vote by committee members, but instead appointed by the party leadership (read: by Newt himself, who often made appointees swear their loyalty to him). Subcommittees also lost their ability to set their own agendas and schedules; that too largely became the prerogative of the leadership. At the same time, Gingrich imposed six-year term limits and required chairs to be reappointed (by leadership) every two years. Finally, Gingrich protected, and in some cases bulked up, the staff leadership offices and increasingly had those offices write major pieces of legislation and hand them to the committees.
Go read the rest. It's fascinating. And also depressing.