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The Perils of Outsourcing Congressional Expertise
Jesse Richman, 9/10/2014

An under-appreciated but critical reason why Congress is less effective -- more polarized, more unproductive -- now than it was in the past is that Congressional committees are a shadow of their former selves.  Committees are the intelligent heart of the lawmaking process.  Woodrow Wilson, somewhat reluctantly, acknowledged that "Congress in committee is Congress at work."  Today the committees know less, do less, and influence less.  Congress has outsourced policy expertise to think tanks which, according to a recent NYT article are increasingly bought by foreign interests.

Congress is awash with information.  Each member of Congress maintains a staff of legislative aides to help them write bills, negotiatiate legislative language, research issues, frame strategy.  And there are hundreds of think tank 'scholars' in each of the major think tanks, thousands of lobbyists, and many many others outside of government who are happy to provide 'expertise'.   

But all of this information can simply lead to polarization, idiocy, and a war of talking points without intelligent integration by people who are working for the public interest (as senior members of the committee see it), and have the long-term perspective to see through propaganda and spin to elucidate the best policies.  Worse yet, this information stream can be bought and influenced by foreign interests interested in steering US policy in directions that serve themselves.  From the New York Times:

More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.

Over the last several decades, both chambers of Congress have systematically degraded their capacity to engage in this process.  Much political science research suggests that an especially important source of expertise in making good policy is the expertise of committee staff.  And the committee staff has been starved.  The graph below shows the size of the committee staff in the House and Senate over time, based on data collected by the Brookings Institution. 


Promenent think-tanks consciously set out during this time period to provide an alternative source of information authority distinct from the internal authorities within Congress.  And members of Congress acquiesced -- under-staffing and in many other ways undermining the independence and power of the committees. 

To be fair, the committees have brought some of this on themselves.  They have all too often -- and much more often than in almost any state legislature -- been populated by members who are unrepresentative of the broader chamber.  When committee seats are stuffed with members who are unrepresentative, the willingness of the rest of Congress to trust committee members' views understandably suffers.  But at least the committee members and the committee staff are not directly paid by foreign governments and other agents intent on bending U.S. public policy to their will.

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Comment by Greg Shaw, 9/2/2017:

A thoughtful piece here. It would be even better if the dates running across the bottom of the graph were in chronological order. Can someone fix this?

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