A CATCHY TITLE no doubt helps in the selling of books, but publishers best serve their customers if the title they choose closely resembles the book's contents. "Unelected Representatives" strongly implies that congressional staff members have taken over the duties of the elected officials for whom they work. But the text of Michael Malbin's extremely well done study of how Capitol Hill staffs function lays out in detail just the opposite point of view.
Malbin proves time and again throughout the book that Capitol Hill staff people do precisely what they are told -- or allowed -- to do by their bosses, the elected representatives. Rarely do those on the staff step outside the boundary of their authority, whether that boundary is expressly limited or is simply "understood" to be the political limit within which that particular member of Congress operates.
I was impressed by the depth of Malbin's understanding of how the system operates, especially since he investigated it as an outsider, without the benefit of having worked within it himself.
The principle criticism aimed at a burgeoning congressional staff is that, because members of Congress are spread too thin, "entrepreneurial" staffers bring in more new projects than their boss can reasonably deal with. The result is that congressional knowledge is limited on most subjects, forcing reliance on those staff entrepreneurs for preparation and attendance at committee meetings, ghost-written speeches and whispered questions for witnesses.
But that criticism is, it seems to me, overreaching. Given the number of activities a senator or a representative must juggle -- from dealing with bureaucracies on behalf of constituents, social-political activities, and legislation on the floor and in committee -- it is a bit naive to wish for the good old days when a United States senator had 10 or 15 letters a week to answer.
Malbin accurately points out that each member of Congress proceeds differently, depending on his or her character and constituency. Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), for example, discourages entrepreneurial staffers on the Finance Committee, relying on their technical work to flush out whatever legislation he chooses to push. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) is portrayed at the other extreme at least in his earlier career in the Senate. Two years into his second term in 1962, Magnuson's Commerce Committee staff smelled political trouble coming in the 1968 elections if he continued to restrict himself to local bread and butter issues. Magnuson gave the go-ahead to a young staffer, Gerald Grinstein, then later to Michael Pertschuk, to plunge him and the committee into national consumer-protection legislation.
There is no question that staffers and members of Congress feed on each other. If the staff knows it is free to bring in and sell projects to the congressman as politically attractive issues, the result is that he becomes known by his constituency as an activist. Since this is all done by choice, whatever image results is presumably the one the congressman thinks well be of the most political benefit.
Once it is established that congressional staffs rarely strike out on their own, as they are too often accused of doing, shouldn't the debate center on whether or not the increasing size of Hill staffs is a benefit or a detriment to the process of government? This is a discussion that is lacking in an otherwise thorough book.
If one begins with the premise that the reason for the existence of elected politicans is reelection, and if the reader can further accept the most of what takes place in national politics is cosmetic, designed only to further the chances for reelection, then some way must be found to extract a public benefit from the machinations we define as the political process. Rarely, if ever, will the Congress, or the president for that matter, agree to confront head-on the basic economic and social issues that accumulate because they are ignored. Thus, until our bubble bursts, forcing real, rather than pretended, solutions to resource and income distribution, we must continue to make do with change on the periphery -- a papering over the cracks in our society until the day comes when substantial repairs can be made.
The private constituencies that influence Congress -- the arms history, the lobby which protects corporate tax benefits, the money industry, the major oil companies -- are much better off without congressional staffs. These private concerns, in concert with their guardians throughout the administration, find success much easier when there is no countervailing congressional staff to dispute their facts and conclusions. It is extremely necessary that public-minded members of Congress have available to them staff resources, not only for research, but for the equally important job of media contacts so that public-oriented issues can be exposed. Precisely because the public is unorganized -- and therefore vulnerable to the economic predators who can always find a way to press their legislative objectives -- an active, if sometimes redundant, congressional staff is imperative. The fact that the neoconservatives in Congress have imitated liberals with their enterpreneurship of conservative issues adds little to the counterargument. Conservative entrepreneurship has always been there, but from a different source.
Perhaps Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) has not kept the pharmaceutical companies totally honset, but through the staff work Malbin describes, he has documented their price gouging, making the public much more aware of what those companies are up to. Would the public or the drug companies be better off if Nelson's staff had never proposed a hearing on the industry? Would the public have benefited as much without the staff work which propelled former senator Fulbright into hearings on Vietnam or Sen. McGovern into hearings on hunger and malnutrition?
Again, accepting the first premise that reelection is the reason for the existence of office holders, the reader should know that elected representatives spend the bulk of their time insuring reelection. After a typical day of receiving drop-in constituents, of oiling the fund-raising mechanism by seeing lobbyists and attending receptions and dinners, of appearing at committee meetings, of dealing with every journalist who can, depending on whim, either praise or denounce, virtually no time remains for either issue expertise or the congressman's family.
There is no question that real congressional reform is mandated by the deteriorating state of the public's affairs. But it should begin with something more fundamental, such as limiting seniority status, and thereby the term of congressional service, and with public financing. Disrupting the all-consuming cycle of election and reelection would do more to free up the Congress for the public's work than the nitpicking and seemingly widespread concern about a build-up of congressional staff.