In the midst of a constitutional crisis of Trumpian proportions, the House of Representatives is poised to unilaterally disarm. At the very heart of how the Congress can hold the president to account is whether it will have the resources to do so.
A quarter-century ago, Newt Gingrich set out to destroy Congress as a force for progress, slashing the House’s funding by 14 percent and eviscerating its support agencies, like the Office of Technology Assessment, which drafted reports on emerging scientific and technological issues. In the last decade, House Republicans literally decimated funding for the House. Overall funding for the legislative branch is down by $370 million in constant dollars over the last decade alone, and funding for committees over that time has dropped by 22 percent—from $432 million to $329 million in constant dollars. Congress is a shadow of itself.
What this means in terms of personnel, for example, is House committee staff fell by one-third from 1994 to 2016, from 1,947 people to 1,298. Government Accountability Office staff fell by one-third, from 4,572 to 2,989; and the Congressional Research Service fell by one-quarter, from 835 to 609. This is colloquially known as the lobotomization of Congress. The average expertise of and resources available to the rump of remaining staff have dropped precipitously, and few in power have any real experience governing. As if you couldn’t tell.
To sum up, Congress is in no shape to take on Trump.
The only real growth in Congress’s budget over the last decade has been for the Capitol police force (up 25 percent), the Copyright Office (up 50 percent), and tellingly, the Office of the Speaker (up 23 percent) and the Minority Leader (up 46 percent). So the leadership has been spared the brunt of these actions even as the first branch has been hollowed out. This year alone, spending on the Office of the Speaker will go up almost 12 percent. And yet, Democrats, having finally regained control of the people’s chamber, are busy cementing Congress’s second-class status.
Just last week, House Democrats held a vote on how much money to allocate to the appropriations subcommittees. While important, this decision didn’t get a lot of media attention, probably because the word “allocation” is scary. House appropriators voted to divvy up $1.3 trillion of discretionary spending among the 12 spending subcommittees, including $34 billion in new non-defense spending. The legislative branch appropriations subcommittee, the smallest of them all, will get a trivial additional 2.6 percent increase, where the average increase across the board is 5.7 percent.
This leaves the legislative branch $433 million below the level that Congress funded it when the Democrats were last in charge in FY 2010. House committees alone are down $103 million. Had Democrats decided to take an additional 1.27 percent of their proposed increase of new domestic discretionary spending and put it toward the legislative branch, the top line for the legislative branch would go back to parity. We could party like it’s 2009. Even if the Dems just gave the legislative branch the same average increase as the other non-defense programs, it would make a huge difference.
As things stand, there’s far too little money for oversight. There’s far too little money for legislating. There’s far too little money for impeachment. There’s far too little money, period.
We’ve long had an imperial presidency, but this is the first time we’ve had a Nero. Our debilitated Congress has usually meant merely that lobbyists and special interests run the show—after all, federally registered lobbyists spent more than $3.4 billion on lobbying alone in 2018. But our imperial president has run amok, and Congress is functionally incapable of cleaning up the mess.
And yet, even with the klaxons sounding red alert, congressional leaders are still more afraid of you than they are of Trump. They are afraid that you will throw them out if they dare to spend enough on Congress to make it a respectable institution capable of meeting its constitutional duties. Maybe they are also afraid that strengthening committees and empowering members will fundamentally change the way Congress works. Perhaps they’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.
House Democrats are busy negotiating a two-year agreement with Senator Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration on raising the budget caps. As the old saying goes, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And there is a big opportunity right here. The Senate was never a fan of cutting Congress and looked askance at their House Republican counterparts. And the Trump administration desperately wants a deal to avoid a government shutdown, especially if it could harm the economy leading into the 2020 presidential cycle. Compared to the money at stake, funding Congress at a respectable level is peanuts.
The final agreement on how much money to spend on Congress has not yet been made. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey are negotiating on behalf of the House. There’s still time to get it right, but only if House Democrats are willing to fight for Congress as an institution. The clock is ticking.