It’s time to invest in Congress.
America’s democracy may depend on it.
For going on a solid decade now, it has been fashionable in Washington to describe Congress as “dysfunctional.” And by most measures it has been. Partisan polarization has frequently led to legislative gridlock and historically low levels of productivity.
For many liberals, it even became increasingly easy to dismiss Congress altogether. If Congress wouldn’t pass Barack Obama’s agenda, Obama was going to do what he could within the existing authority granted to the executive branch, and dare Congress to stop him.
But now, for the many Americans concerned about Donald Trump’s presidency and potential abuse of executive power, Congress is suddenly looking a whole lot more important. And it’s going to need some help and support to live up to the challenge facing it.
Over the coming weeks and months, many liberals will soon appreciate the wisdom in our constitutional system of checks and balances. “Ambition,” James Madison famously wrote in Federalist #51, “Must be made to counteract ambition.”
— James Madison
To the Founders, an imperious authoritarian President Trump might not have come as a surprise. After all, the memory of the tyrannous and capricious King George III was very much in the Founders’ minds as they thought about the power of the executive. And, much as some Founders wanted a strong executive, most recognized that diffusing power was the best way to limit the abuse of power.
“The men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 had a vivid Calvinistic sense of human evil and damnation and believed with Hobbes that men are selfish and contentious,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter, in The American Political Tradition. “To them a human being was an atom of self-interest. They did not believe in man, but they did believe in the power of a good political constitution to control him.”
Madison understood (as he put it in Federalist #10) that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Therefore, he put his faith in the likelihood that the best way for something like the public good to emerge would be to pit competing interests against each other, holding each other accountable. It was a system that was willing to accept much inefficiency in exchange for protection against tyranny.
Now, almost 230 years later, Madison’s assumptions are about to be put to their strongest test. We will have the kind of president whose power our Constitution was designed to limit. And after years of fretting about the inefficiency part of the bargain, we’re going to find out if it was worth it.
As the Trump transition has moved forward, Republicans in Congress have been generally cautious about criticizing the president-elect. Many are no doubt still hoping that he will simply turn out to be a generic Republican, willing to sign the bills they send to him, and mostly uninterested in the details.
But we are starting to see some signs of ambition counteracting ambition. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both of whom had bitter fights with Trump in the 2016 campaign, have now seized on concerns about Russia’s interference in the election and promised to investigate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who rarely gets ahead of his caucus, has expressed interest in investigating as well.
McCain, along with other senators, expressed serious reservations about Trump’s nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, given Tillerson’s close alliances with Russia.
Over in the House, meanwhile, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), a former prosecutor who led the Benghazi hearings, said, “The legislative branch was designed to be and at one point was the most powerful of the three branches. It is without question the weakest of the three branches now. Part of that is because we’ve allowed that to happen.”
If Congress is going to check the excesses of a Trump administration, however, it will be hard work. After all, despite all the fulminations about executive overreach in the Obama administration, Congress did very little. A cynic might argue it never intended to do much; it was all just political theater. But now the stakes are higher. For all of Obama’s alleged overreaches, Trump has shown remarkable willingness to toss out democratic norms in a way that is qualitatively different from anything before.
Does Congress have the capacity to check the executive branch? Presumably, if meaningful oversight is going to happen, it will be conducted through committees. Yet, congressional committees now have less staff than they did at the start of the Reagan administration.
According to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress, the House employed 1,843 staff on its committees in 1981. In 2015, that number was down 40 percent, to 1,110. The Senate had 1,022 committee staff in 1981. In 2015, that number had fallen 13 percent, to 888.
So while the world has gotten far more complex over the last three and a half decades, the executive branch (after a brief contraction during President Bill Clinton’s administration) has continued to expand. And the amount of lobbying (both registered and not) has grown considerably. Meanwhile, Congress has reduced its own capacity.
It’s not in terms of numbers of jobs; there’s been a brain drain. Congress has suffered from increased staff turnover. During the last 10 years, the median Senate chief of staff served in that position for just 2.5 years, and the median chief of staff in the House for just 2.8 years. This lack of experience and institutional knowledge makes it harder for Congress to effectively check the executive branch, since members rely so much on their staffs these days.
But it’s no wonder turnover has been high. Pay is down.
Consider what’s happened to salaries between 2009 and 2013, based on CRS reports. Congress is paying less and less, in constant dollars.
- Median pay for House “counsel” positions declined from $74,925 to $59,555, down 20 percent.
- Median pay for House “legislative director” positions declined from $93,013 to $81,177, down 13 percent.
- Median pay for House “legislative assistant” positions declined from $55,643 to $48,622, down 13 percent.
- Median pay for Senate “counsel” positions declined from $98,063 to $84,424, down 14 percent.
- Median pay for Senate “legislative director” positions declined from $148,288 to $131,912, down 11 percent.
- Median pay for Senate “legislative assistant” positions declined from $72,859 to $66,606 down 9 percent.
These are not generous salaries in Washington, DC, which has become one of the most expensive places to live in America. (According to BankRate’s cost of living calculator, you’d have to make more than $72,000 a year to maintain the same standard of living that a $50,000 salary could afford you in Cleveland, Ohio.) Small wonder that congressional staffers migrate so quickly from Capitol Hill to K Street, where they can make much more as lobbyists.
Our constitutional system of checks and balances is a set of rules, and words on paper. Members of Congress can choose to take their constitutional responsibility seriously, or choose to ignore it. But even if they take their responsibility seriously, they also need the capacity to act. Sorting through Trump’s many conflicts of interest will be hard work. Documenting the extent to which Russians meddled in our elections will be hard work.
It’s good to see some members of Congress expressing will to act. But words are easy. Meaningful action — the hard work of actual oversight — requires staff. And for that reason, anybody who cares about the fate of American democracy should support more money for Congress.
Admittedly, this is an unpopular position, because Congress is deeply unpopular. But Congress has never been more important. Our system of checks and balances depends on inter-branch conflict. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition, as Madison put it. But ambition also needs the resources to counteract ambition.