How lobbyists became Congress’s leading policy wonks

August 8, 2012

From the outside, it sure looks like this Congress is getting nothing done. From the inside, Hill staffers tell a different story: Their schedules are totally overloaded. Jessica Lee, a legislative aide to Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), rattles off the hodgepodge of issues that she's responsible for covering: "Foreign policy, defense, women's issues, veterans' issues, and immigration," Lee said Tuesday at an New America event on Congress. "It's pretty impossible portfolios that a lot of staff members [have] to manage. . .It's a very stressful job."


When Congress doesn't work, other parts of the government take up the slack. (Andrew Harrer -- Bloomberg)

Lee's comments might not garner much sympathy outside the Beltway, given the abysmally low approval ratings of Congress, which the public perceives to be doing very little. But out of plain sight, there are major ways in which Congressional staff and schedules become overloaded in recent years. That's made it harder for members and staffers alike to wade through the intricacies of tough policy issues — and it's created even more of an opportunity for special-interest lobbyists to come in and offer their own expertise.

Congress had been bombarded with more information than ever to inform their policy choices, both from their constituents back home and advocacy groups. But separating the signal from the noise can be a confounding, time-consuming task. In 2009, for instance the Senate received a whopping 865 percent more constituent mail than in 2002, according to the Congressional Management Foundation. Constituent mail to both Houses rose 400 percent over the same period. "We don't have a problem with information — we have an information overload," said Lorelei Kelly, who convened the panel at the New America Foundation to discuss the impact of technology on Congressional policy debates.


(Source: Congressional Management Foundation)

But sorting through the huge influx of feedback also saps Congressional offices of time and resources, and it's not always clear what policy guidance to distill from such information. At the same time, "there are fewer House staff and fewer legislative support agency personnel now than at any time in the recent past, with data going back to 1979," according to a 2010 analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.

As such, Congressional offices may be increasingly inclined to rely on outside experts to put the pieces together on policy debates. "Things that I love, that really help me do my job is when I have experts who can distill for me the impact of an issue to my local district," Lee said at Tuesday's panel, citing a nonprofit's Web site, costofwar.com, as one example. Certainly that's the mission of any number of think tanks. But it's a need that special-interest lobbyists with vested interests are trying to meet as well.

"Lobbyists play a very useful role. They are experts, and they are present when you need them," said Kelly. "But I think the question is we need to broaden the information playing field." Lobbyists argue that they are simply defending their first-amendment rights and provide a valuable service to legislators by lending their subject-matter expertise. But those from lucrative industries have more resources to make their case before Congress, paying for outside studies and assigning teams of lawyers to pour over complex legislation, for instance.

Hill staffers, for their part, argue that they aren't sitting ducks. "I always checked against other sources; just because it was the first person who picked up the phone, it wasn't the last word," said CMF's Susie Gorden, a former Congressional staffer. "Is the lobbyist just someone just in D.C., who just doesn't understand the impact in the district?" Lee, the McDermott staffer, doesn't believe that all lobbyists are equally credible. "Human rights advocates who have a really deep level of understanding on an issue. . .I would say that's very different than have a lobbyist from a major law firm that has a beautiful bill ready to be dropped, written by a bunch of lawyers who get paid a lot of money," she said.

In fact, Congress used to have more resources at its disposal to make these kind of judgment calls. From 1972 to 1995, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment "provided Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues," as described on its archive page. Another agency, Congress's Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, connects state and local governments with Washington debates over federal legislation.

The agencies were meant to help legislators better understand the policy issues at stake. "We don't have time — certainly members don't, but staffers don't either, to understand each issue in depth," said Nancy Lubin, a former OTA staffer. But both were abolished by Republicans in 1995 as part of the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of Congress, which also "slash[ed] the budgets and staff of the House committees," notes Bruce Bartlett. As such, Congress was drained of institutional, in-house policy expertise — and two agencies that were historically regarded as objective and nonpartisan. (Wired magazine called it a "Congressional Science Lobotomy.")

Meanwhile, Congress's attention is becoming increasingly divided between legislating and fundraising as the price tag of political survival keeps rising. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who faults the current state of dysfunction for her retirement this year, singled out the fundraising arms race as one of the first things she'd fix. On the Hill, "the schedule begins to be adjusted to fundraising schedule. Members have speaking engagements. Some point, we've got to spend time here. You can’t cut in and out on major issues," Snowe said in a late June exit interview.

There's been some interest in rebuilding Congress's in-house policy analysis arm: Hilary Clinton vowed during her 2008 run to bring OTA back, and more recent proposals to restore the agency have been floated in the House. But given how little enthusiasm there is for expanding the government workforce, there may be other ways to deepen the policy debate as well.

Kelly, for instance, suggests that Congressional offices consider relying more on analyses from local academics and land-grant universities as "highly credible filters of information" that are in their own districts. Constituents themselves might also be able to contribute through "informed convenings" back at home — a wonky alternative to town halls that might attract local experts to participate.

Others like the Sunlight Foundation advocate for Congress to disclose more of its internal proceedings to the public, to increase accountability and generate more constructive feedback. But that's also assuming that there is an appetite among the public for getting into the weeds of congressional policy and procedure — something that lobbyists are paid a princely sum to do. As Gorden noted at Tuesday's panel discussion: "Process isn't sexy."

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Ezra Klein | August 8, 2012