Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Does Congress Suck So Bad? Because Repugs Slashed the Staff Budget

Until the Gingrich takeover in 1995, staff kept Congress honest.  The Office of Technology Assessment issued a constant stream of fact-stuffed but clear and concise reports on every issue to come before Congress, preventing members from spouting gravity-denying lies in front of TV cameras.

Veteran staffers with prosecutorial experience handled the questioning of witnesses, keeping hearings on track and avoiding wasting time with pointless grandstanding by members.

But Newtie closed the OTA and members preferred to make speeches in place of questioning and here we are.

Naked Capitalism:

Another big change took place when the Republicans took control of the House in 2010. They put through significant cuts to the budgets of individual members. The result was big reductions in the pay to Congressional staffers and the evisceration of other budget items. For instance, staffers no longer have funds to buy trade journals or travel to conferences to obtain information and develop contacts outside the Beltway reality-distortion machinery. The result is that it is becoming more difficult for staffers to get information outside the predigested, persuasively-packaged positions served up by lobbyists. And even worse, the pay levels make it well-nigh impossible to hire anyone who might be inclined to do so. As one staffer remarked, “Only the children of rich parents or people who plan to become lobbyists can afford to take this job.” And needless to say, most children of rich parents aren’t predisposed to challenge the current order of caviar for the elites, crumbs for everyone else.

And on top of that, the pay levels also assure that the staffers are overmatched by lobbyists who have top-dollar law firms providing language to be inserted in pending legislation. The average pay for new graduates of top law schools is the in the $130,000 to $167,000 range. By contrast, junior Congressional staffers make just above $20,000, mid range staffers (those with X to Y years of experience) get salaries of $30,000 to $50,000, and senior staffers (X to Y experience) receive in the $70,000s. A few very seasoned staffers might just breach the $100,000 mark. And remember, House ethics rules make it effectively prohibit to earn additional income through writing or speaking. The problem of low pay relative to job responsibilities is made worse by the fact that Washington, DC is a high-cost city by virtue of the impact of a tsunami of lobbying dollars on living costs. At the Atlantic Economy conference in March of this year, Paul Volcker voiced disapproval of the way-too-obvious sheen of prosperity in the capital. The AACRA cost index of American cities put Washington DC as number 8 of 307 urban areas, with costs 145% of this national average.

Once upon a time, it was possible to have Congress produce well-crafted, terse, durable legislation. Former member of the Australian Treasury John Hempton has called the Securities Act of 1934 the single best piece of legislation ever written. By contrast, there was a good reason Dodd Frank was a sprawling bill that left numerous issues open by punting on major questions by kicking them over to further studies or rulemaking (which was recognized to give the banking industry lobbyists a second go at watering the rules down).

The health care matter may seem a minor issue, but it’s not. When you have staffers that are already significantly undercompensated and then make it worse by inflicting another de facto pay cut on them, you just assure further bribery. It’s no different that underpaying cops leads to more abuses, like only a fraction of the cash seized in drug and numbers rackets bust being turned in (a former DA in Brigdeport, CT, a famously rough city, told em the skimming in his day was about 20%. His guess is that it is now closer to 80%).

Sadly, some corruption in government may be inevitable, but there’s a huge difference between a system which has some petty pilfering around the margin and one that is being redesigned to stymie anything other than influence-peddaling. And we can already see that the best government money can buy is a crappy product. But the people who’ve succeeded in making Congressional staffers even more susceptible to lobbying have done a masterful job of diverting attention from the real game by playing on class and economic resentment. Nothing like getting the peasants fighting among themselves to keep the nobles safe.
If citizens want a public sector that can govern, they are going to have to pay for it by either taxing the rich or raising the compensation of public servants, or probably, both. There’s no free lunch. Talented and effective people are going to go where they are rewarded, and they are going to work for those who pay them. That means an army of incompetents in Congress, or worse, an army of talented people in Congress who work for the private interests that actually pay their salaries.

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