Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dumbing Down

Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards have a really interesting long piece at Washington Monthly on how Republicans have dumbed down Congress. Not in the most obvious way, by electing a cavalcade of morons (although that doesn't help), but in their approach to congressional staffing:
In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. 
Why would Newt Gingrich and the newly-elected GOP majority in the house decimate their own staff and degrade the information-gathering and policy-making expertise available to lawmakers?
Part of it is political optics: What better way to show the conservative voters back home that you’re serious about shrinking government than by cutting your own staff? But a bigger reason is strategic. The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995 and the Tea Partiers of 2011 share the same basic dream: to defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs that have been created by bipartisan majorities since the New Deal. The people in Congress who knew those agencies and programs best and were most invested in making them work—the professional staffers, the CRS analysts, the veteran committee chairs—were not going to consent to seeing them swept away. So theyhad to be swept away.
The Republican belief that reality can be held at bay, King Canute-like, by simply decreeing that conservative policies will have benevolent effects, began long before Karl Rove came on the national scene. Unlike the Republicans, however, King Canute understood you can't change reality by simply wishing it away. Accordingly, the government has grown, not shrunk, with fewer Congressional staff to oversee and investigate increasingly complex agencies.

Another result of the gutting of Congressional staff? The outsourcing of policy development to entities  with very vested interests in certain policy outcomes:
Much of the research, number crunching, and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits. This has strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation, and given conservative groups an added measure of influence over Congress, as the shutdown itself illustrates.
This article is an in-depth primer on the crucial role played by both individual congressional staffers and the institutional congressional staff of organizations like the Congressional Research Service and the Office of Management and Budget in developing policy and providing competent Congressional oversight of government. It also details exactly what Newt Gingrich and the radical "Contract With America" Republicans wrought with their slash and burn approach to reorganizing Congressional committees and congressional staffing. Let's just say that the former speaker doesn't come out of this one smelling particularly fragrant.

We have seen the results of electing know-nothings to Congress in the form of climate change denial, lack of oversight in foreign policy and national security matters, adoption of economic policies that actually crash the economy, and on and on. It used to be that the know-nothing representatives went to D.C. and had competent, long-serving experts in various fields at their disposal, who would bring the new guys up to speed on policy proposals.

Now we have corporate lobbyists and right-wing think tanks providing that "expertise", with predictable results.

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