Congress may not be broken but oversight is
COMMENTARY | April 08, 2010
One Capitol Hill veteran says it is detail work, the grease that keeps the system running, that is failing, a casualty of a changed culture. He says it’s the people, not the rules, that are the problem.
By Russ Choma
Congress may not be broken, exactly. Sometimes it's a close call, but new legislation and spending are still being approved, as the recent health care reform enactment shows. According to one expert observer, Donald Wolfensberger, it is detail work – the grease that keeps Congress running from day to day – that has become a casualty of a changed culture that emphasizes fundraising and partisanship.
Wolfensberger was a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill for 28 years and is now director of the Wilson Center’s Congress Project. His first job on the Hill was in 1969. He retired in 1997, and has been at the Wilson Center since then. In addition to running the Congress Project, which holds forums and seminars connecting political scholars with policy makers, Wolfensberger also writes a column on Congressional procedure for Roll Call.
I got in touch with Wolfensberger as part of Nieman Watchdog’s current project, ‘Examining Congress.’
One terribly important change he cites is the lack of oversight. Tracking previously approved programs and axing or rewriting ones that don’t work, or waste money, is a shadow of what it used to be, Wolfensberger said in an interview. Big investigations of scandals that attract television cameras still happen, but interest in diving into the weeds on most things is lacking, he said.
“Of the two types of oversight, regular program oversight is the tedious part, but where you probably have most benefits in terms of improving a program or eliminating a program,” Wolfensberger, shown at right, said. “And then you have the type that members like – the investigative subpoenas flying, big names coming in, cameras comg in.”
But, he told me, these aren’t examples of a “broken Congress,” they’re an example an integral part of the process that could work fine, but simply isn’t bothered with anymore. I asked him why that was the case.
“Time and interest,” Wolfensberger said. “Members think oversight is very tedious and there is very little political payoff. You end up offending more interests than you help because every time you look into a program, you’re looking at someone’s pet cow.”
Fear of stepping on toes is ham-stringing oversight, Wolfensberger said.
“You’d think it’d make sense – the American people believe there’s a lot of waste and fraud in government spending, but everyone is reluctant to be stepping on toes, unless they’ve got a real high-profile scandal,” he said.
Good program oversight, the kind that doesn’t rely on subpoenas or have television cameras to add pressure from the public, is built on what Wolfensberger calls “good research, gumshoe work.” That requires staffing that no longer exists. House committee staffing peaked north of 2,200
in 1993. The next year, he says, staffing was slashed to near 1,300, a little-noticed byproduct of the Republicans’ Contract With America.
“It’s crept back by,” Wolfensberger said, “But I get the impression that the oversight staff took the biggest hit – and they’ve kept authorization staff.”
According to records provided on Legistorm.com
, a non-partisan Congressional transparency Web site, there were 1,623 House committee staffers in 2009, earning a total of $144.9 million. This is an increase from 1,316 House committee staffers in 2001, earning a total of $90.8 million. I compared staff levels of each House committee since 2001 (when Legistorm’s records begin) and found that, as Wolfensberger suggested, most committees have added staff, but none like the House Appropriations Committee, which in the last eight years, went from 180
staffers to 247. And, of the handful of committees that have lost staff, the most severe was the House Government Reform committee, dropping from 132 to 120.
So, Wolfensberger said, the staff that helps Congress spend money is on the rise, and the staff that helps manage the money isn’t.
The lack of motivation and resources to pursue the “everyday work” with much zeal stems at least partially from a lack of leadership, Wolfensberger says. Any desire to pursue oversight wanes further when the results of a lengthy investigation aren’t followed up on.
“It can take months and months when you do have a decent oversight effort, and you issue a report and it kind of just goes ‘thud’ if the leadership doesn’t want to push it further,” he said.
Press focuses on fights
Interest in oversight from the press is lacking as well, Wolfensberger said. The emphasis in most coverage is on the fight, which feeds the partisanship and campaign mentality, he said. But it ignores the daily work that just keeps rolling on, he said. Wolfensberger cited a Feb. 19 Rasmussen poll
that found 87 percent of mainstream voters agreed that, “Washington is broken,” but 73 percent of the “political class” disagree. Rather than interpreting this disconnect as a sign that Washington insiders are out of touch with the heartland, Wolfensberger sees it as an example of the heartland never seeing what the insiders actually do.
It takes time to get anything accomplished but with high expectations for dramatic change, it’s naturally easy to see the process as broken when it doesn’t materialize, he said. When the reporting focuses on the most dramatic event of the day – a shouting match, tit-for-tat barbs – it’s even easier.
Coverage of the health care debate is an example, Wolfensberger said. It took a year to get it done, but Congress overhauled health care, a historic feat. While anger and vitriol dominated headlines and were a visible part of the process, much of the more tedious work of actual lawmaking – the hammering out of committee drafts that did win a handful of Republican votes (though none on the final vote) and won over many conservative Democrats – still happened. At times it wasn’t pretty, Wolfensberger said, but the passage of health care shows Congress is working.
“Look at the clips from the debate on health care – it was David Dreier and Louise Slaughter shouting over each other on the health care rule,” he told me. “But most of the debate was very civil, very informed and there were a lot of policy-related things being put across by both sides. The press does play up the confrontation. That leads people to think all they do is fight and bicker – but they got something done. They got the votes and passed the thing.”
To a degree, it’s natural for coverage to skew in that direction, Wolfensberger said, after all, that’s where there’s the most obvious action.
“The reporting focuses on the most dramatic aspects of the process, which is the contention: the confrontation, the fighting and the yelling,” he said.
Wolfensberger acknowledges that all of this – the lack of time and interest for more mundane tasks, the on-camera blowups – are symptoms of bigger problems: intense partisanship and a constant campaign mentality. But, over and over again in our interview, he said those symptoms aren’t indicative of a “broken Congress.” It’s the people occupying the seats opting for partisanship and the pressure of a “permanent campaign” he said. The permanent campaign mode feeds the partisanship and the partisanship feeds the campaign mentality. When you’re constantly on the defensive, there’s no room for error by picking on the wrong pet project, or spending too much time in committee rooms wrangling over line items, and it pays to deliver a partisan sound bite to the press.
Unlike many others, Wolfensberger doesn’t think major structural changes, like rewriting the filibuster are the answer. Problems with the filibuster are a function of the partisanship and campaign mentality, he said, not of a “broken” rule. A rewritten rule is only as good as the people willing to abide by it. Of course, changing the attitudes and mentality of those in Congress isn’t easy.
To some degree, there is a natural ebb and flow, Wolfensberger said, expressing faith that voters will eventually push the tide towards the middle. Partisanship is not new, it peaks and falls, he said. I asked him if the fact that there are so many with so much invested in keeping partisan lines firmly drawn – special interests on both sides of the aisle, who heavily fund the permanent campaigns and aren’t willing to back candidates who cede an inch – might disrupt that natural righting process.
Wolfensberger said he was not so concerned about those influences on campaigns, but rather the importation of the campaign thinking to the halls of Congress, and its inclusion in the leadership decision-making.
“The leadership has a lot to do with it. Both parties are very suspicious of each other and they warn their colleagues not to fraternize with the enemy,” he said. “They bring campaign mode into legislating … in campaigning it’s zero-sum: I win, you lose. I think the high degree of partisanship comes partially from the leadership, the head of that train saying, ‘We’ve got to build our majority.’”
The leaderships can take steps to separate campaigning from legislating and encourage more interest in committee work, Wolfensberger said.
The evolving schedule that allows members to devote more and more time to fundraising exacerbates the partisanship and campaign mentality, Wolfensberger said.
“I would still maintain there was never a golden-age of bipartisanship, but it’s become more personalized because members don’t form the type of relationships they did when they stayed around Washington longer,” he said.
Current scheduling allows members to flee the Capitol to spend their weekends – often starting Thursday evening and lasting until Monday evening or Tuesday morning – campaigning and fundraising in their home districts. Wolfensberger suggested leaders in each house could rewrite the schedule to lengthen work weeks deep into the weekend for several weeks in a row, basically mandating that members stay in the District for several weeks at a time, and then following these intense bursts of work with mini-recesses that provide members unbroken breaks of time back in their districts to do their fundraising and campaigning.
But, Wolfensberger said, just like talk of reforming the rules, simply telling members to spend more time in Washington doing work isn’t enough – it’s only as good as the willingness to abide by the new schedule. Bringing Congress back to Washington for longer could just bring more of the fundraising to Washington too, he said.
“You can change the schedule, but it would also require leadership make them knuckle down and do their committee work,” Wolfensberger said.