Congress is unpopular. It’s also widely perceived as ineffective. Regrettably, I share that perception. But the problem rests not in who serves in Congress, or their staff, or in the resources at their disposal. It rests in Congress’ retreat from its role as a deliberative and legislative chamber.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, I had an appointment with a House of Representatives staff member. His boss — or, more likely, the staffer himself — was doing something unhelpful about a treaty in which I had taken an interest, and I was there to encourage his office to be more constructive.
I was surprised to be told by the staffer that his boss’ activity was all for show, as “the House doesn’t have anything to do with treaties.” That wasn’t true. While the Senate provides advice and consent on treaties, the House votes on the legislation that implements them.
The staffer looked puzzled. “What’s implementing legislation?” he asked. He didn’t realize the House had a job to do.
This cluelessness isn’t typical of Hill staffers. I’ve worked with many who are dedicated and serious. But it sums up too much of my experience, which is that Congress does not focus sufficiently on the need — its job under the Constitution — to check the executive branch.
Another example. In 2014, President Barack Obama, without congressional approval, committed the United States to abide by a treaty banning land mines. So in 2015, the National Defense Authorization Act required the Pentagon to report on the effects the ban would have. The report was due in May 2016.
But by May 2016, nothing happened — no report. So Congress just mandated the report again in late 2016. That’s par for the course. Even when Congress does act, administrations can often ignore it — and rely on Congress not to enforce its legislative provisions.
This isn’t the Congressional Management Foundation’s point of view. A few weeks ago, the nonpartisan nonprofit organization released a report based on a survey of Hill staff arguing that Congress doesn’t work well because staff members have too little time to deliberate, too little access to expert knowledge, and too few ways to improve their skills.
I have some sympathy with this. In a nation as overcentralized and overlawyered as ours, of course staff have too little time to deliberate. If the government did less, it might do better. As it is, Congress has delegated acres of authority to the administrative state — and yet it’s still swamped.
And I’m tempted to accept that Hill staff are underpaid. It’s hard to keep experienced staff on the Hill when salaries are low compared with what they could earn elsewhere. And when Hill staffers with six months on the job run up against phalanxes of executive branch lawyers, the results are predictable.
Since the mid-1990s, Republicans have kept a tight rein on Congress’ staffing budget, in the hope of avoiding charges of Clintonian extravagance. Yet it’s not made Congress popular — or effective. But the idea that Congress would work better with more money reminds me of writer Bette-Jane Raphael’s line: “Giving a man space is like giving a dog a computer: The chances are he will not use it wisely.”
Congress doesn’t use its resources effectively. If it wants to check the executive branch, if it wants to push back on the administrative state, if it wants to take its legislative responsibilities seriously, it can do so. But, too often, it doesn’t.
Checking and controlling the executive doesn’t mean blindly opposing everything a president wants. But the Founders assumed that Congress would wish to assert its legitimate prerogatives against the executive. They never envisaged that Congress would lose interest in those prerogatives.
No wonder it’s ineffective — and unpopular.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.