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How Congress Cut its Policy Expertise

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In the past 20 years, Congress has effectively allowed its legislative support branches to wither and stripped away its ability to process information. It has cut back its ability to review, contextualize, and evaluate information in a way that creates informed policy.

Lorelei Kelly, leader of the Smart Congress pilot project at the New America Foundation, looks into this trend in a new paper: "Congress' Wicked Problem." It explores topics we have discussed in a series of posts on the House and Senate.

She explains how much of the cutting to the policymaking infrastructure of Congress came in the mid-1990s. That was also the era of cutting the shared staff who had historically built knowledge and expertise around certain topics. Some members of Congress used these shared staff to their advantage, giving relatives and friends plum positions with little real work, but for the most part shared staff were a valuable asset.

A rule change in 1995 cut pooled funding for staff and essentially eviscerated the caucus system. Kelly does a fantastic job of explaining in detail what impacts that cut had, showing how the knowledge gap was filled with a new top-down system of information handed out by party leaders.

The paper makes an important distinction between information and knowledge in Congress. While lawmakers might receive plenty of information from lobbyists and interest groups, they have a weakened ability to seek other views and context for the flood of spin coming from K Street.

Another key change Kelly notes is the elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. Congress created the nonpartisan agency in 1972 to look at the impacts of technology policy decisions. After OTA was cut, there were calls for lobbyists to fill the gap. Sunlight and others called for restoring funding to OTA or some other nonpartisan source of expertise.

We are glad to see someone exposing how Congress has weakened its ability to understand complex policy decisions, and we hope it will spark more discussion of what can be done to stop the cutting of knowledge.