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Group Strives to ‘Make Congress Great Again’

Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group has a bipartisan following

Lee Drutman, left, and Kevin Kosar are the founders of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, which is focused on bringing together congressional staff from all sides to brainstorm ways to improve Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Lee Drutman, left, and Kevin Kosar are the founders of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, which is focused on bringing together congressional staff from all sides to brainstorm ways to improve Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Its name is a mouthful, but the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group has gained a following for its mission to strengthen a polarized and unpopular Congress.

The founders come from think tanks in different positions on the political spectrum. Kevin Kosar spent 11 years at the Congressional Research Service before leaving for the “free market” R Street Institute. Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at the more liberal New America.

But their joint concern for the health of Congress gave them a common cause. They’re focused on bringing together congressional staff from the right, left and center who care about the institution and want to brainstorm ways to improve it.

The Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group’s slogan borrows from one of the most famous in recent American political history, edited with its own quirk: Make Congress Great Again. Kosar and Drutman handed out their own version of red hats with their inscription at the end of a February meeting. An attendee donned a cap as he left what’s become a regular series of lunch discussions on policy, this time on the subject of lawmakers’ role in regulations.

It was a subject that could put some people to sleep, but the group of about 50 attendees watched intently as Kosar, Drutman, R Street colleague C. Jarrett Dieterle and Brookings Institution senior fellow Philip Wallach gave presentations on the relationship between federal regulators and Congress.

Staff members who work for both Republicans and Democrats debated the role and legislative options for lawmakers to guide, oversee and influence regulations. Opinions ran the gamut. CQ Roll Call was invited to the meeting on the condition staffers couldn’t be quoted so they could debate freely.

What’s possible?

The group’s following has grown on Capitol Hill, but it’s been a relatively staff-driven affair, with meetings since May 2016. They’ve kept returning to the question of what should Congress decide it should do, and can it do it.

“There’s sort of this ongoing conversation, where we’re constantly thinking about ways to give Congress more capacity or get Congress to take more responsibility and ownership of its role as the first branch of government,” Drutman, a former congressional fellow, said after the meeting. “And there’s often some version of the same question that’s raised, which is, ‘Well, if you give Congress this power, will they use it responsibly?’”

Congress is now dysfunctional and split into partisan camps, he said. “I think one of the challenges we face is, how can Congress imagine itself as something other than [what] it is now?” Drutman said.

That is a challenge that Congress might be wise to take up. The legislative branch has dipped to near historic lows in terms of popularity lately, though a small bounce upward was observed postelection. A RealClearPolitics average of polls of congressional job approval from mid-January through early March shows an average of just under 23 percent of the U.S. population approves of the job lawmakers are doing in Washington. Generally, approval has been sliding since the early 2000s.

And those inside don’t feel much better about the institution.

“There was that diffuse sense that I think Kevin and I both picked up on in our conversations, that Congress should be something more,” Drutman said. “But before we started this group, there was no central node for people who felt that way to kind of come together.”

Kosar said: “I’m on the right and Lee’s on the left, but if you read the raw numbers, staffing is down — support agencies, committees — yet government is bigger and more complex. That is just a formula for an incapacitated Congress, essentially.”

But the control is at lawmakers’ fingertips. “There are very few institutions in society — I can’t think of another — that gets to decide on its own budget,” Drutman said. “They are shortchanging themselves.”

The numbers show Congress certainly has put itself on a diet as it tightens the rest of the annual budget.

The Legislative Branch appropriations bill funding the House, Senate and its various institutions makes up just 0.4 percent of the entire federal budget. It is one of the 12 spending bills Congress is supposed to send to the president each year to fund the government.

As the Congressional Research Service notes, funding hit a peak in fiscal 2010 at $4.67 billion. In fiscal 2016, lawmakers provided $4.36 billion. Lawmakers are still negotiating the final fiscal 2017 level, as the government operates under a stopgap funding bill through April 28. Lawmakers cut more than $300 million in just six years.

Now, Kosar and Drutman see an opportunity for the institution to take a look at itself. And the presidency of Donald Trump, Drutman said, “makes Congress feel a lot more important.”

“We’re not pushing a set of solutions — we’re asking a set of questions about how Congress can better do its job,” Kosar said in his R Street Institute office a couple of months prior to the meeting. “This is about fostering a social movement on the Hill itself.”

Swapping tweets

Drutman and Kosar hatched the idea for the group in an informal way: they swapped tweets and then got coffee.

“I had become interested in this issue of congressional capacity a long time ago,” Drutman said, recounting conversations with congressional staffers about the powerful influence of lobbyists.

He described how staffers, who often work “incredibly long hours,” rely on the subject matter expertise of those off the Hill because there’s simply not enough time for them to know all they need to know.

“I kept saying if you’re concerned about lobbyist influence, you should invest in congressional capacity,” Drutman added.

The focus turned to how to improve the institution of Congress itself. An R Street event in October 2015 where Drutman, Kosar and others debated “Restoring Congress as the First Branch of Government” had drawn a crowd of more than a hundred. Clearly an interest was out there, but not a whole lot of political action, so they saw an opportunity.

“In many ways, when it comes to the workings of an institution, there weren’t many partisan talking points,” Kosar said. “There weren’t talking points, so it’s a really ripe place to start talking about reform.”

Eventually, the two settled on a name and Kosar bought a web domain. The first meeting had lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, something Kosar described as a deliberate move to demonstrate that he and Drutman were dedicated to keeping the group nonpartisan.

Virginia Republican Rep. Dave Brat and Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes both came to speak and it brought a big crowd from across the political spectrum. The next month, people came back.

“Then it became, well, of course we’re going to keep doing this,” Kosar said.

Looking ahead

Drutman and Kosar say that broadly, they want to open people’s minds to a different way of thinking about Congress. They’ve seen that many on the Hill assume today’s Congress has always been this way — something aided by high turnover of young staff, lawmakers who haven’t been around long and persistent political gridlock.

Their hope is the conversations can change people’s perspective, and that their efforts can continue to spread among people who make the institution work. Kosar noted that some 450 people subscribe to their blog, People have “cribbed” the “Make Congress Great Again” slogan in articles and elsewhere, Kosar said.

For him, it’s a “long game” to get people to value making the institution better. The goals are more people at the meetings, more people talking about capacity and a push for adequate resources to do the jobs Congress imposes on itself, Kosar explained, but none of that comes quickly. He noted a victory with the fiscal 2016 spending bill, which contained a slight increase for Legislative Branch appropriations.

“So, shoots of green,” Kosar said. But it will take time to win the fight against what he characterizes as “an element of learned helplessness occurring on the Hill” amid the status quo.

“You don’t have to assume that this is imposed from without and that there’s nothing to be done,” he said. “So then the question is, well, it doesn’t have to be this way — how could it be?”

Longtime staffers who worked on the Hill during different eras come to the meetings to find answers to that question.

“There’s been good interest across party lines, across chambers, across a wide range of folks outside of Congress as well,” Kosar said. “It’s one of those things where you talk to anybody about it, they kind of get it immediately.”