Congressional staffers, the people who make Capitol Hill run, believe the legislative branch isn’t doing its job and blame polarization for the problems.
That’s the takeaway from “State of the Congress 2022,” a report issued last week by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Partnership for Public Service, featuring the opinions of a bipartisan collection of “institutionalists” working on Capitol Hill.
While staffers were critical of Congress, the goal of the report wasn’t to find fault but to assess the capacity, functionality and effectiveness in hopes of finding a path toward a more functional legislative branch.
The report was generated to “capture the snapshot of the state of Congress now, not for the purposes of embarrassing the institution, but rather to be a benchmark that can be used to measure improvement,” said CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch.
New polling data released by Gallup last week found that only 7 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress – down 5 points from 2021. That’s the lowest of 16 public- and private-sector institutions covered in the survey. But, according to the “State of the Congress” report, “80% of Americans also believe that an effective Congress is essential to running the country.”
But the congressional aides surveyed for the report – 128 “exemplars,” most with at least a decade of experience and representing a variety of demographics and positions – believe Congress is a long way from being effective.
One-quarter believe “Congress currently functions as a democratic legislature should,” with Democrats a bit more pessimistic than Republicans. Both sides believe lawmakers and staff must have an understanding of Congress’ role in democracy. Only 4 percent said that they were “very satisfied” with Congress’ current state.
And the lack of effectiveness is at last partly rooted in increased partisanship, in the view of the exemplars.
According to Fitch, “there have been increasing levels of dysfunction and a greater amount of polarization in the institution in the last three decades.”
More Democrats than Republicans believe that members of Congress are not adequately held accountable by the institution for their actions. Nearly equal numbers of Democrats (66 percent) and Republicans (70 percent) believe that congressional leadership should enforce the rules of decorum and civility. Moreover, two-thirds of Democrats (66 percent) and slightly more than half of Republicans (54 percent) “strongly agree” that noncontroversial legislation is likely to fail due to polarization among lawmakers.
Further, Democratic and Republican exemplars believe lawmakers’ primary role should be solving constituents’ problems but 54 percent say Congress lacks the means for understanding citizens’ concerns. (However, that answer is weighted heavily by party, with 68 percent of Democrats agreeing with the statement, compared to just 36 percent of Republicans.
And the parties are split on the next highest priority, with 24 percent of Republicans selecting “supporting political party policy” and 22 percent of Democrats saying “law-making.”
Overwhelming numbers of Democrats and Republicans believe that civility among lawmakers is “very important” but only 1 percent of those surveyed were “very satisfied” on that front. “Not civility, for ... civility’s sake, but civility towards an end, which is to make our democracy work better,” Fitch said.
While not as high a priority as civility, bipartisanship is also seen as a key element of a functioning Congress.
The survey found that 59 percent of participants believe bipartisanship is “very important” but, again, only 1 percent are “very satisfied” with that aspect of Congress.
Along the same lines, 93 percent of both Democrats and Republicans believe that collaboration between party lines is necessary to best serve the nation’s needs, but very few believed that building a relationship would be easy.
“My sense is that most staff would generally welcome greater collaboration across the aisle, but that the political dynamics on both sides present a chilling effect on efforts to do so,” one Senate staffer said.
Despite their concern about Congress ability to do its job, the exemplars suggested areas where there are opportunities for improvement. They general agreed that four areas are “very important”:
- “reclaiming Congress’ constitutionally-defined duties” (75 percent) .
- “improving staff recruitment, diversity, retention, compensation, and benefits” (69 percent).
- “reforming the budget and appropriations process” (61 percent).
- “ensuring continuity of congressional operations in emergencies” (61 percent).
But to achieve any of these goals, the staffers believe Congress must build capacity and infrastructure because they believe there are large gaps between what is required and what is in place now.
For example, 80 percent said it is very important that “Congress have adequate capacity and support to perform its role in American democracy” but only 5 percent said they are “very satisfied” with what’s in place now. And 74 percent said it’s very important that Congress have sufficient technological infrastructure to support members’ duties. Again, just 4 percent were “very satisfied” with the current technological infrastructure.
Despite the seemingly dire data contained in the report, Fitch is optimistic that Congress has the capacity to improve and is already set on a positive path. However, he emphasized that “one of the sources of either instability or hyper-partisanship is not the rank and file but the leadership” and the leaders will need to push for change.
“I think there are some guideposts embedded in this report that will give current and future reformers both inside and outside the institution ideas and a bit of a roadmap on how to improve the Congress,” Fitch explained. He stressed the importance of the Modernization Committee that will hopefully assess Congress’ path and suggest changes for improvement if needed.
The report points to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which has achieved bipartisan support for nearly 150 recommendations to improve the legislative branch’s operations.
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