America’s Brainless Government

Lee Drutman and Steven Teles, in A New Agenda for Political Reform (Washington Monthly, March/April/May 2015), explain how, while the complexity of issues facing America has increased, the ability of Congress to understand and cope with them has decreased. Some excerpts:

“Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which provide nonpartisan policy and program analysis to lawmakers, employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979. The same pattern of diminished in-house expertise is true throughout government. As the University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio has noted, the number of federal bureaucrats declined about 10 percent between 1984 and 2012. At the same time, business lobbying, political polarization, and wealth inequality all started their steady and unmitigated increases.

The more complexity policymakers have to deal with, the greater the strain on their ability to intelligently think before they act. With each year, the strain gets greater, because the social, political, and legal complexity all continue to grow.

There is also more legal complexity. The U.S. code of federal regulations grew from 71,224 pages in 1975 to 102,295 pages in 1980 to 174,545 pages by 2012. Some of this is the result of societal complexity—new technologies and new projects require new regulations.

All three types of complexity are only going to keep growing. (What intervention could possibly stop them?) If we continue on our current path of not giving the government adequate policy capacity, the gap between what our policymakers need to know to effectively govern and what they actually know will only increase.

The buildup of in-house congressional expertise from 1946 to 1979… did provide Congress with the capacity to think and act for itself—to override corporate pressure and pass legislation cleaning up the air and water; to prosecute, in bipartisan fashion, the crimes of the Nixon White House; and to investigate and roll back intelligence agency abuses with the now-legendary Church and Pike Committees.

When Congress had capacity, it had the time and resources to get together and think through legislation and oversee the rest of the government. Now it doesn’t. As the figure on the left shows, the time lawmakers spent in committee meetings deliberating together rose at a steady clip from the early 1960s until the late 1970s, then plummeted. The decline was partially a consequence of the time demands on members of the rise in campaign fund-raising, but the decline in staff played a critical role. So, instead of debating issues in committee meetings, members and their staff get briefed separately by lobbyists—the very people that members were now spending so much more time raising money from.

The federal government across all its branches has experienced a deterioration in its ability to acquire, process, and analyze information. But the problem is especially urgent in Congress, which is at the center of America’s current governing crisis.”