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Tag Archive: Congressional Staff

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.

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When It Comes to Pay, All Feds Aren’t Created Equal

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By Daniel Schuman and Alisha Green  It comes as little surprise to hill watchers that House staff are underpaid compared to their Senate equivalents, let alone executive branch and private sector staff, but we decided to dig a bit deeper. Just in time for the holidays (and those non-existent public sector bonuses) here's a comparison of key positions in the House, Senate, and executive branch. We admit that the data is a bit old, like the Ghost of the War on Christmas Past, but it's the best we can do with what’s available. House-Senate-Exec-pay-chart-updated The shaded areas in the bars for the executive branch staff show a range of potential pay.

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Keeping Congress Competent: The Senate’s Brain Drain

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By Daniel Schuman and Alisha Green One of the foundations of democracy is a legislature that functions well. The ability to assess whether a legislature is functioning properly depends on the public's ability to see what it is doing. Observing what the U.S. Senate is doing, unfortunately, is a difficult task, and one that is unnecessarily hard. Have special interests become increasingly powerful in the Senate because the upper chamber has diminished its capacity to legislate? To evaluate this question, we gathered data about congressional staff numbers, pay, and retention from a number of difficult-to-access (and often non-public) sources. While the U.S. Senate is often seen as the wiser and more seasoned counterpart to the House, we believe it is suffering from the same affliction that has robbed the lower chamber of some of its ability to engage in reasoned decision making, placing it at the mercy of special interests. Over the past thirty years, the Senate weakened its institutional knowledge base and diminished its capacity to understand current events through a dramatic reduction of one of its most valuable resources: experienced staff.

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New Investigations and Suitcases of Money

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Now boarding, El Al nonstop flight to Israel. Please make sure your suitcases of money are properly secured in the Prime Minister's house. William Jefferson eat your heart out. An investigation into corruption in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office led to a search of Olmert's house where suitcases of money were found. The suitcases, containing hundreds of thousands in American dollars (I know what you're thinking, American dollars, aren't they worthless now), came from New York businessman Morris Talansky, referred to in coded transmissions as "the Laundry Man." Olmert denies any wrong doing, claiming that the money was for campaign purposes. Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review makes about the only observation one can:

I don't know a whole lot about Israeli campaign finance laws, but I imagine that suitcases full of cash that go undeclared until a police raid on your home probably violate them.

Back here in the states, the Department of Justice opened a new investigation into the possible misuse of congressional staff by two offices. Reps. Jane Harman and Neil Abercrombie were accused of using congressional staff to do campaign work by a former staffer who recently plead guilty to fraud charges. It is a violation of House rules for congressional staff to do campaign work unless it is on their own time. This may also violate federal law statutes regarding the solicitation of political contributions from employees.

Both Harman and Abercrombie denied using staff for campaign work. It should also be noted that these violations rarely go anywhere. If anything, members get a slap on the wrist, which in congressional terms is a politely worded letter that stops short of admonishment. The House Ethics Committee should investigate this alleged misuse of campaign staff. They did recently when Rep. John Conyers was alleged to have forced a staffer to do campaign work and they should do so again. I'm not holding my breath though. (Sigh.)

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The Opposite of Change Congress

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Last week, Sunlight hosted Larry Lessig as he unfurled the carpet for his new project, Change Congress. The Change Congress effort will ask candidates to select from a pledge whether they will refuse lobbyist and PAC money, refuse earmarks, support public financing, support full transparency in Congress, or a selection of all or some of these proposals. Today, Roll Call reports on the kind of practice that seems to highlight the institutional problems that Congress faces in dealing with the issue of money and influence in the Capitol. The problem does not rest solely with members themselves:

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LegiStorm Posts Staffer Personal Financial Disclosures

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LegiStorm - an insanely useful site of congressional information including staffer salaries and other disclosures - has, for the first time, posted PDFs of the personal financial disclosures that some staffers are required to file. For every member of Congress, at least one staffer must file a personal financial disclosure. If a staffer is making the maximum pay, as some chiefs of staff do, they must file a disclosure. Staffers hold a lot of power on Capitol Hill and are often overlooked as recipients of undue influence from outside groups. LegiStorm notes this in their press release:

Most disclosures are relatively mundane and appear to demonstrate those staffers have no discernible potential conflicts of interest, Friedly said. However, hundreds of staffer disclosures reveal ties to interest groups and lobbying firms, either as a past job, a spouse's work or a future employment agreement. Others reveal lucrative side jobs, adding as much as $100,000 or more to their federal pay.

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