Fortunately, the 116th Congress created the 12-member bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Under Chair Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-Ga.), it produced recommendations that could help Congress attract and retain serious members not given to delegating to the executive branch essentially legislative powers.
The size of congressional staff has not kept pace with the growth of congressional business. There are almost 1,500 lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry, three for every representative. Congress’s parsimony toward itself — the cost of Congress is 0.08 percent of the federal budget — has costs. Staff pay has declined relative to the private sector, so institutional memory suffers as the typical staffer leaves after four or five years. House committee staffs declined about 50 percent between 1991 and 2015. In 1912, Congress set the House’s size at 435 members, one for every 211,000 constituents; after the 2020 Census, the average member will have roughly 765,000 constituents. Claims on Congress’s time — policymaking, oversight, etc. — have grown exponentially since 1912, yet Congress is not in session significantly more days than 50 years ago. More than $300 billion is spent annually on “zombie” programs Congress has not reauthorized for years.
Since the 1940s, the number of bills passed per Congress has decreased while the average number of pages per bill has increased. Since fiscal 2012, no standalone appropriations bill has been signed into law. Gigantic omnibus bills, burying controversial appropriations among those that are crucial (e.g., defense), give members the choice of all or nothing. Members always choose all.
The parties’ leaders have displaced committees in shaping legislation: In the 113th Congress (2013-2015), 40 percent of major legislation reached the House floor without a committee report. Most members are thereby marginalized, lack occasions for developing relationships across the aisle, become insular and focus grimly on reelection to their unsatisfying jobs. So, the members who linger in a curdled Congress are the least admirable: They don’t care that they don’t matter.
A few, such as Kilmer and Graves, do. Their report’s most controversial proposal is the return of “earmarks” — member-directed spending that the report gives the anodyne label “community-focused grants.” The report’s reasoning is that members know better than executive branch decisionmakers what their districts need. But the most important reason for forthrightly embracing pork is that legislative bargaining is healthy because the alternative is the majority discouraging heterodox views within its ranks and treating the minority as irrelevant. Bargaining is additive: Support for A, B and C is purchased by including D, E and F. This is a tolerable transaction cost of democracy.
In 1789, there were three executive agencies: the Departments of State, Treasury and War. Today, the report’s most stunning sentence says: “While there is no official inventory of federal agencies, one recent count puts the current total at 278 distinct agencies.” So, Congress is not even certain of the components of, and hence cannot meaningfully control, the agglomeration of bureaucracies it has created. Modernization might begin by counting.