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Congress's Diminishing Budget Strengthens Lobbyist Influence

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Yesterday's Legistorm report on congressional staffers-turned-lobbyists provides more support for the theory that Congress is turning over its work to special interests. It adds to a mountain of evidence that includes an expanding pay gap between House staff and their private sector equivalents, fewer policy staff in Congress, and significant new cuts in staff positions and pay.

Looking at a decade's worth of data, Legistorm found that "5,400 people have been both lobbyists and received paychecks as staff from the legislative branch in the past decade." The report adds that it's likely that at least 2,900 former staffers are currently lobbying, with 605 current congressional staff having served as lobbyists in the past decade. These numbers are likely low, both because the number of federally registered lobbyists does not include many people who lobby and data available for the study was incomplete (missing "perhaps hundreds of potential staffer-lobbyist matches.")

Photo from Valerie Everett on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/3376876299/Having inside connections is a big help to the bottom line for staffers-turned-lobbyists, according to two research papers. Lobbyists who are connected to members of Congress get paid more than those who are only experts. In addition, lobbyists who worked for a US Senator "suffer a 24% drop in revenue -- around $177,000 -- when their ex-employers leave office." In Washington, who you know is more important than what you know.

That influence is only magnified when Congress cannot effectively evaluate claims made by lobbyists. Unfortunately, Congress has been shrinking its pool of experienced staff for over two decades. According to my review of data going back to 1979, "there are fewer House staff and fewer legislative support agency personnel now that at any time in the recent past." House personal office, committee, and leadership staff are at 87% of their 1979 levels. Committee staff alone are at 62% of their 1979 levels, having eliminated 755 positions. Major legislative support agencies have suffered tremendous losses, and are at 65% of their 1979 staffing levels. GAO, the investigative arm of Congress that looks at the public purse, is at 60% of its 1979 staffing level; CRS is at 80%. While government has grown more complex, there are fewer congressional staff to provide oversight, and they cannot help but rely upon the army of lobbyists whose influence has expanded to fill the vacuum. It's no wonder that $3.51 billion was spent on lobbying in 2010.

The reduced congressional capacity to handle influence has an effect on decision-making. For example, a recent look at lobbying during the financial crisis found that mortgage-lending companies that lobbied prior to the financial crisis engaged in riskier lending practices and were more likely to be bailed out.

With these institutional factors at play, it's no surprise that staff are leaving to go to the private sector. A review of two decades of staff salary surveys shows that the leading factors that drive out staff are unpredictable work hours and low pay. The high turnover rate and youthful median staff age puts Congress at a disadvantage when dealing with the Executive branch or the private sector.

This trend is only going to accelerate. The House Appropriations Committee has adopted what it called "the largest ever two-year reduction for the legislative branch." For upcoming fiscal year 2012, which starts on October 1, the House Appropriations Committee has endorsed a 6.46% cut to the House of Representatives, which on top of the FY 2011 cuts decreases the House's budget by 10.4% over two years. By way of example, the amount of money available to each personal office for a Member of Congress will be reduced by around $90,000. Since most office costs are fixed and staff pay is already effectively frozen, this likely will translate into staff reductions and pay cuts. Put another way, if you add up all spending for the legislative branch, including expenditures for security, all the support agencies, the visitor center, and so on, the proposed 2012 budget is $4.38 billion. By contrast, the total federal budget is $3.82 trillion. That's a small amount of money when compared to its responsibility to set the direction for the entire government.

Tomorrow, the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup its Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, determining how much pain to mete out to Senate personal, committee, and leadership offices. At the same time, it will determine whether to agree to the House's huge cuts to the Government Printing Office (16%), the Library of Congress (8%), Government Accountability Office (6.4%), and other important legislative support agencies. The future of many staff now includes earlier retirement, furloughs, and a bare minimum of resources.

All of these problems are compounded by Congress's lack of introspection about the work that it does and our inability to track these exertion of influence by special interests. It's true that there are important ongoing legislative efforts to close these lobbying disclosure loopholes, most notably the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act, and a broad consensus about what to do about lobbying. And there are some efforts to make more congressional information publicly available, so that the public can figure out what's going on. Unfortunately, we are far from where we need to be if we want an effective Congress that capably balances its dual roles as policymaker and agent of the people.