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"A debilitating brain drain has actually been under way in Congress"
June 27, 2014 8:38 PM   Subscribe

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. (The Republicans who took over the Senate in 1995 were less draconian, cutting committee staff by about 16 percent and leaving the committee system largely in place.) 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.
posted by the man of twists and turns (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
The t-party should be viewed as the party of the cross. Secular information is not welcome.
posted by Brian B. at 8:54 PM on June 27 [2 favorites]


As a Georgian exposed to Newton Leroy Gingrich for the entirety of his political career, I didn't think it was possible for me to loathe him any more than I already did. I was wrong.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:53 PM on June 27 [13 favorites]


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.

Recall that last summer and fall many establishment Republicans, having lived through Newt Gingrich’s disastrous shutdown in the 1990s, argued that doing so again would be folly. So why did so many GOP House members ignore those warnings and listen instead to the Heritage Foundation? Part of the reason was that they were conditioned to do so. Over the years, as Congress’s in-house capacity for independent policy thinking atrophied, the House GOP largely ceded that responsibility to Heritage, which has aligned itself with the Tea Party since former Senator Jim DeMint took the helm in 2013. The think tank became the only outside group that was allowed to brief members and their staff at the influential weekly lunches of the Republican Study Committee, the policy and messaging arm of House conservatives. So when Heritage promised, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats would cave to GOP demands for a delay in the individual mandate and cuts to “special” health care benefits for congressional staffers, many GOP members believed them. (Many who didn’t followed Heritage’s instructions anyway when its lobbying arm, Heritage Action, orchestrated a grassroots email campaign demanding that members hang tough. Subtext? Or else.)

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.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:46 PM on June 27 [33 favorites]


Grift is easier this way.
posted by notyou at 10:51 PM on June 27 [3 favorites]


Thinkin' about stuff is hard
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 11:53 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


They've said for decades that their goal was to destroy the government. The plan is working. The more inefficient govt is, the easy it becomes to get a mandate to dismantle it. Idiocracy, here we come.
posted by dejah420 at 12:07 AM on June 28 [10 favorites]


It's another brick in the pavement of the self-fulfilling prophecy that the Republicans tout about government: it's inefficient and incapable of actually doing anything right, so let's gut it, cut its budget, lay off all the people doing actual useful work, and then point at it and say "see, we told you, it's incapable of doing anything right".

I remain flummoxed as to why anyone would actually vote anyone into office who holds as a central belief that the organization into which s/he is seeking to be elected is an organization that should not exist. But that is what has happened over and over for the past several decades.

All the supposedly business-loving right-wingers would be appalled if any business in which they held stock were run this way. But they're happy to see our public institutions eroded from the inside, like termites eating away at the structure, willing its collapse, simply because of some odd notion that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not exist as long as there is a possible capitalist market alternative that might somehow make someone a buck instead of Supporting the General Welfare.
posted by hippybear at 12:08 AM on June 28 [41 favorites]


Why pay for careful, intelligent, informative research if you know already you ignore that stuff?
posted by Segundus at 12:15 AM on June 28 [5 favorites]


All the supposedly business-loving right-wingers would be appalled if any business in which they held stock were run this way.

I hate to say it, but that's not an uncommon way for businesses in the valley to be run. "I know, let's cut our tech writers and outsource our engineers to China! Who cares if the product can't be made any more, our stock prices will soar!"
posted by happyroach at 1:19 AM on June 28 [21 favorites]


Hey Democrats - how's this for a strategy? Make this a campaign issue, but don't use television, sound bite web ads. Instead, target intelligentsia and opinion leaders with well-thought out, detailed messages explaining the situation and the consequences in detail. Let them produce the sound bites, on media and face to face. Possible? Effective?
posted by tommyD at 3:59 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


When a major part of your strategy is fabricating your own reality, having people on your staff to do actual research can be highly problematic. Best to sack them and soldier on.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:36 AM on June 28 [7 favorites]


Debacles like these, by undermining the public’s faith in government, wind up perversely advancing the conservative antigovernment agenda

The word "perverse" implies either unintended or backwards outcomes. Making government dysfunctional isn't some knock-on effect or by-product of these efforts. It's the root goal of these choices.

The part about outsourcing research to Heritage is a useful insight though. We all tend to prefer when the data aligns with our pre-conceptions.
posted by dry white toast at 4:52 AM on June 28


I think this is a drastic misreading of what happened in 1995. The cuts in staff were mild, and they were already underway: GAO had begun to gradually reduce its workforce in 1992.

The big thing to remember is that in the 1980s office work required a lot of secretaries and paperwork assistance. The computer revolution meant that you didn't need someone to type up a copy of the report and that printing those reports no longer required a lot of skilled typesetters and print professionals.

Almost all of the 1995 cuts made perfect sense and very few of them were actual reductions in agency expertise.

The biggest harm from the Clinton years was the loss of veteran purchase managers and procurement specialists just as we entered a new phase of expanded contracting and IT acquisition. Computers can typeset and budget for you, but you need an expert to get staplers and computers without overpaying.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:00 AM on June 28 [8 favorites]


P. J. O'Rourke's old joke:

"The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."

...coming from a conservative, now seems disingenuous. He shoulda said that the Republicans get elected and insure that it can't.
posted by Ipsifendus at 5:48 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


It is expected that this would be a dumping ground for left of center remarks about the GOP, but I have noticed over time that many Democrats, esp. those in the House, are far from being much above 15 watt bulbs in illuminating our democracy. And though the GOP clearly has become the Just Say No party, lobbyists continue to be the dominatrix-like people who command legislation.
posted by Postroad at 6:26 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


I was just about to cite P.J. O'Rourke, but Ipsifendus beat me to it.

I will point out that O'Rourke made that observation in 1991, well before Gingrich became Speaker.

It is expected that this would be a dumping ground for left of center remarks about the GOP

Why should the basic competence of government and the risks of outsourcing of policy research to partisan so-called "think tanks" be only a "left of center" concern?
posted by Gelatin at 6:33 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


Well, again, it comes back to the choice between the principled party that will cave in to a gentle breeze versus the party that promises to do the wrongest and worst possible thing and by god they are as good as their word
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:57 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


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.

But now it's leaner and more competitive!
posted by Legomancer at 6:59 AM on June 28


What's extraordinary is that the thing that the Republicans oppose: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people as opposed to government by the wealthy aristocracy, is precisely what we fought the American Revolution to unseat. The words that their most radical spokespeople on the far right like to use against liberals and democrats, like "unamerican", "unpatriotic", and when they're really going for it, "treason", most closely apply to themselves. What they don't like is the very foundation of this country; the thing they're striving for is what the aristocrats and corporatists had when we were a colony.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:27 AM on June 28 [13 favorites]


(Hm, that first sentence should read "...what we fought the American Revolution for." I lost track of the subject of my sentence there.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:46 AM on June 28


That's basically a fairy tale version of the American Revolution, though, George_Spiggott, which was a war where local elites threw out foreign elites to consolidate their own power. Precious little in actual US history lives up to its PR.
posted by gerryblog at 8:19 AM on June 28


gerryblog, that's a lovely countermythological take, and I don't doubt that competitive self-interest was a powerful motivator for getting the colonial elites on board, but the foundational documents and institutions we created, the separation of powers, disestablishment of religion, the protections of the bill of rights and all the rest still exist and speak for themselves.

But even if we were to accept what you say at face value, and say it was all a fairy tale, it is still a fairy tale we tell ourselves about what this country is supposed to be, and if the Republicans both speak and work against it daily without admitting that that is what they're doing, your point is irrelevant.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:35 AM on June 28 [4 favorites]


That's basically a fairy tale version of the American Revolution, though, George_Spiggott, which was a war where local elites threw out foreign elites to consolidate their own power.

Fairy tale or not, the elites (plutocrats) are throwing out everyone to consolidate their own power.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:40 AM on June 28


I for one love the suggestion that the plutocracy have all read Howard Zinn and are just keepin' it real.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:41 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


As a Georgian exposed to Newton Leroy Gingrich for the entirety of his political career, I didn't think it was possible for me to loathe him any more than I already did. I was wrong.

Actually, "Newtie" grew up near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (my own hometown area) so he really doesn't have much claim to being a Georgian. In fact, back where I'm from, Gingrich is pronounced "gin-GRICK" with a K sound on the end, but Newt basically pronounces it phonetically because you don't get far in Southern politics by correcting Bubba's pronunciation.
posted by jonp72 at 10:09 PM on June 28


Idiocracy, here we come.
dejah420, I hated that movie - hated it because I see it coming true. It's a perfect summation of the New Stupidity.
posted by tizzie at 12:50 PM on June 29


I for one love the suggestion that the plutocracy have all read Howard Zinn and are just keepin' it real.

Alas, some plutocrats didn't get the memo.
posted by Rykey at 4:34 PM on June 29


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