Should Congress spend more on itself to avoid deterioration?

Former lawmakers and groups think crisis is brewing if investments not made

Civil society organizations and former lawmakers are calling on appropriators to boost funding for Congress itself to avoid a “crisis.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Civil society organizations and former lawmakers are calling on appropriators to boost funding for Congress itself to avoid a “crisis.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 26, 2019 at 5:00am

Civil society groups and former lawmakers are calling on appropriators to boost funding for Congress itself to stem what they call a “significant loss of institutional capacity.”

Ten former lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, joined more than three dozen groups to pen letters to House and Senate appropriators asking that the Legislative Branch slice of the federal funding pie get a bit larger. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Eva M. Clayton of North Carolina were among the former members to sign the letter, which was led by the advocacy organization Demand Progress. 

“Underlying trends have precipitated a crisis,” the signatories wrote. “If Congress does not invest more in the legislative branch now, it likely will become incapable of serving as a co-equal branch of government in the future.”

The Legislative Branch Appropriations bill is the smallest of the 12 annual spending measures and makes up less than 0.36 percent of the approximately $1.33 trillion available to appropriators. 

House and Senate appropriations committee leaders are still working out what the subcommittee allocations, or 302(b)s, will be for fiscal 2020, and the letters are aimed at influencing those decisions.

The groups, including the Congressional Management Foundation,  the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University and the R Street Institute, point to three major challenges facing Congress “that threaten to strain existing resources beyond the breaking point.”

The Architect of the Capitol has requested an additional $98 million for fiscal 2020 to cover renovations, security considerations and backlogged maintenance that has been put off for years.

“Infrastructure needs will put an undeniable strain on other legislative branch functions if the appropriations baseline is not increased,” says the letter.

The authors think Congress needs modernizing, and that means more than sprucing up the setting. They point to the recent expansion of child care facilities, paid internships and revamping of workplace practices as steps in the right direction. But all corners of the legislative branch struggle with retention of expert staff, cybersecurity and aging information technology, which won’t be inexpensive to address.

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Retention is an issue that Congress has been grappling with for years. Capitol Hill experience, where long hours and high stress meet low pay and few opportunities for advancement, are often stepping-stones to private-sector jobs where former staff can make more money and leverage their connections.

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines for advocating a “living wage” on Capitol Hill. The New York Democrat has introduced an unusual policy that no one on her staff will make less than $52,000 a year — an almost unheard of amount for many of the staffers whose long hours make House and Senate offices run.

Science and technology are the third target of those advocating for more funding.

“Additional expertise and capacity in this area can help Congress better understand the tradeoffs of different policy approaches and create forward-looking policy frameworks in areas like privacy, cybersecurity, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence,” reads the letter.

The authors also make a play for fiscal conservative backing, pointing out that investment in technological expertise and capacity can “support the federal government’s responsible use and adoption of these technologies, improving efficiency, and delivering better value for taxpayers.”

One account within the Legislative Branch bill — the Members’ Representational Allowance, or MRA, which funds staff salaries and official office expenses — is currently funded at approximately the same level as when the account was established in 1996 and is approximately 13 percent below peak levels in fiscal 2010. The Senate version of the accounts have also been on the decline, from a high of $422 million in fiscal 2010 to $390 million in fiscal 2014, a decrease of 7.6 percent. Accounts saw a $5 million boost for fiscal 2019 to provide paid internships in Senate offices.

The letter raises concerns that Congress struggles to retain experts on staff and has delegated policymaking outside the legislative branch, leaning on lobbyists, interest groups and other outside forces to write legislative proposals and weigh policy options.