Thursday, January 17, 2013

Congress's self-imposed ignorance

Lorelei Kelly of the New America Foundation has an excellent paper lamenting Congress's lack of expertise to sort through the tsunami of information sweeping over Capitol Hill. She notes that lawmakers themselves are to blame because of cutbacks since the Gingrich Revolution of 1994.

"It was not always such: less than 20 years ago, Congress operated one of
the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies.  It maintained an
extensive network of shared expert staff--individuals and entities that
comprised deep pools of both subject matter and legislative process
expertise.  Importantly, most of these human resources worked for
Congress as a whole and provided symmetrical access and assistance to
staff and Members tasked with complex policy decision-making.  Before
1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared.  Joint
hearings between committees and between the House and Senate were more
common as well. While this former system stands in stark contrast to the
one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can rebuild
an expert knowledge system for Congress--one with even greater
capabilities-- by harnessing the technology tools now at hand."
When the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, Speaker Gingrich deliberately sought to dismantle the "legislative service organizations" that offered independent advice, one of the best of which was the Office of Technology Assessment. The leadership also cut back on staff sizes and constrained the remaining organizations like CRS and GAO.  This paper says that the result has been less expertise in Congress, and thus more influence by powerful outside advocates.

Among other things, Kelly recommends reestablishing OTA, filling senior positions at CRS, and making it easier for legislative service organizations to operate. I agree. If Congress hears only from strident advocates, it will find it harder to craft smart, nonpartisan policies.

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