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Congress could use a little more self-care

April 26, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Molly Kennedy

It’s well known that the American people hate Congress, and it’s no mystery why. Congress is an increasingly dumb and dysfunctional organization that seems incapable of improving our nation. Lice and colonoscopies have polled consistently higher than Congress in recent years.

How did this come about? It was due to a convergence of several factors, with political polarization likely chief among them. However, I think an underappreciated driver of Congressional disapproval is the very hate Congress has had for itself over the past few decades. In short, Congress has been hurting itself for far too long—cutting away at itself, so much so that it has now lost the capacity to respond to the needs of the nation. Thus, if Congress wants the nation to love it again, it must learn to love itself first. Congress needs some time for personal development; it needs to see its value and reinvest in itself. To rise to the exigencies of the 21st century, Congress must apply to itself that maxim we now so frequently apply to ourselves: treat yo self!

With this in mind, Congress should first turn to its “brain,” the area that has been most neglected. To write good laws, Congress needs to know what the issues are and what the facts on the ground say. Clear and concise information about complex topics must be readily available. This is the work of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). These are the non-partisan institutions that comprise Congress’s brain.

The problem is that the brain was lobotomized. In 1995, Newt Gingrich swept into the speakership and proceeded to fire a full third of the staff at these institutions that make up the Congressional brain. Today, even though the country has grown and the world has become more complex, the GAO and CRS still only have 80 percent of the workforce they had in 1979. Congress, in some strange state of self-loathing, has refused to grow its brain back.

As a result, members of Congress are less informed than they once were and many are forced to make massive decisions without the necessary knowledge or briefings. However, they have not been content to give up seeking the information they need to make policy decisions. No, the informational gap left by the shrinking of the congressional brain has simply been filled by lobbyists and partisan think tanks. Whereas members of Congress once relied upon balanced and unbiased factual reports, they now make decisions based on the suggestions of ideologically driven reports. In a shocking turn of events, “corporations now devote more resources to lobby Congress than Congress spends to fund itself.”

If we want a Congress that understands the issues, operates from a common factual basis and values national interest over corporate interests, then we must push Congress to work on rebuilding its brain. Congress must believe, as it once did, in its power to do good work.

Having fixed the brain, Congress must then care for its body—the legislators and their staff. Although Congress people hold all the power, they have repeatedly refused—in an again self-hating manner—to increase their pay or their staff’s pay.

Each congress member has, on average, only $1.3 million annually to spend on their staff’s salaries and other official expenses such as travel. This means that the average staffer’s yearly salary is now $50,971. This is an incredibly low salary for such a prestigious job in a city as expensive as D.C. As a result, the average congressional staffer is getting younger and younger, and fewer and fewer are becoming lifelong staffers. It is difficult to attract top talent, and if that talent is attracted, it will always have one foot out the door ready to step into a cushy six-figure job on K Street. Thus, Congress should compete with the private sector’s average salary to attract and retain the best of the best. Our government deserves it, and we most definitely can afford it. All of these funding increases I’m suggesting will barely register in the $1.2 trillion discretionary spending budget that Congress controls.

Congress members themselves also deserve a raise. Their salary is $174,000—by normal standards this is a great salary that places them solidly in the top 10% of earners. But this is actually not nearly enough. Why? For one, legislators must maintain two houses—one in D.C. and one at home. To avoid this, as many as 50 representatives are rumored to sleep in their D.C. offices.

But the argument is not that we should pay legislators more because they are near poverty; they are not. We should pay them more—a lot more—because there is evidence that it reduces corruption and makes them more responsive to constituents. Raising pay could also attract more talented people who would otherwise be uninterested in government service. Finally, it would send an important message: there are only 535 people in the nation that we have deemed fit to write our laws. Their pay should reflect this fact; they should not be outearned by the common lawyer or doctor they interact with daily. In Singapore, members of parliament earn, on average, $888,428. That’s a salary which shows the value of government, one that appreciates the incredible importance of these elite legislative positions.

Also note that this position is not inherently left- or right-wing. Better funding our Congress—getting it out of its self-hating stupor and fixing its brain and its body—is not something that necessarily helps the left more than the right. A sharper, more informed and better staffed Congress can work just as hard at effectively cutting taxes as it can at implementing single-payer healthcare. Indeed, Republicans might have been more successful over the last few decades if they had better appreciate the importance of good government. A weak and self-sabotaging Congress can only hurt us all. It’s time for Congress people to set aside their fear of backlash, rebuild their capacity to legislate competently and start spending more money on themselves and their institution/ To care for America, Congress must first care for itself.

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