This Ain't No Tea Party

Of all the things we tend to overlook when we examine the corruption and inefficiency of government, the one area that seems always to escape serious examination is perhaps the most important cog in the outrageous machine:  Professional congressional staff.  The truth is that these people are frequently tasked with the authoring of legislation, and their elected members or the committees for which they work seldom see the final form of the legislation.  If making law is like making sausage, then these are the meat grinders who decide what subtler elements and sometimes major aspects of legislation will be included.  These people aren’t elected, and yet their effect on legislation is profound.  They manage to attach goodies to legislation that have no business in the bills.

Some of the worst are committee staff, where large and complex bills numbering into the thousands of pages frequently emerge.  You don’t think individual members, or even committees of them write all that legal jargon, do you?  No, of course not.  You can’t be tied up with menial chores like crafting legislation when you have a tee-time to make with lobbyists, and a full cocktail party schedule to keep with the DC smart set.  Instead, most of this legal legwork is turned over to staff, and this is where some of the worst abuses can occur.  The necessary reform is simple:  Congressional staff must be term-limited too.

I can hear the complaints from half a continent away, as those staffers recoil in horror at the proposal that they too should be subjected to limits upon their service.  Too damned bad.  The growth in their sheer numbers has been astonishing.   The fastest way to begin cleaning up the mess in Washington DC includes getting these staffers rotated out, permanently.  My argument will be that no member of Congressional staff ought to be employed for more than ten years, life-time, meaning no retirements, no special carve-outs, and no goodies for them.  Of course, there will always be corruption, but to remedy that, you move the pieces around some.  Make it impossible to spend more than one Congress on a given committee’s staff. The committee staff, for instance, of the Ways and Means committee, has far too much power.  It’s time to “spread the wealth,” I believe, and move them around as “temps” which they will be.  Yes, they’ll still have nifty salaries, and of course they can receive benefits just like any other civil servants, but not one damned dime or perquisite more.

There are other things we must put in place with staff:  They must undergo drug-testing, polygraph examination, criminal history and background checks, and be subjected to automatic IRS audit every year they serve the Congress.  Most importantly, to stop the “revolving door,” there must be a lifetime ban on lobbying Congress after their congressional service has ended, and lobbyists may not be eligible to work as Congressional staff for at least ten years after having been a registered lobbyist.  That’s right, I can hear the screams already: “It’s not fair.  You’re singling us out.  Why are you scapegoating us?”  Tough beans.  The simple fact is that it is not in the interests of the people of the United States to let Congressional members accrue undue power, never mind their staff.  They’re already in a position to profit from insider information, so there’s no sense pretending this isn’t a serious problem.

It’s the dirty secret in Washington DC that everybody knows, but few dare acknowledge:  Congressional staff serves as an unelected continuum from which there is no escape.  Voters can fire the top three members of each party on every committee, but still the same program runs.  If you wonder why, the answer is because behind the scenes, the politicians have been relieved of their legislative responsibilities and instead focus on fund-raising, while their staff carries on most if not nearly all of the member’s legislative work.  By the time you consider the impact of Committee staff, the effect is astonishing.  More, there is co-mingling between branches, where staffer X who works for Congressman Y is married to Senior Adviser A who works for executive branch Secretary B.  These sorts of back-channel relationships are well-known to the insiders, and they’re all players in the same game.  They know the rules, they know the way in which “things get done” in Washington, and you as the voter, so remote from this distant capital, have no idea what they’re doing, or why.

There’s no doubt that many are conscientious and diligent, but if we’re going to regain our control over this government, it must include an in-depth examination of Congressional staff, and perhaps of executive branch staff as well.  It’s all much too chummy in Washington DC, and while you think these people are adversarial under our two-party system, most often, that’s a show played out in front of the press.  Behind the scenes, it’s the staff carrying the water, and there’s no denying that they’re very collegial across the board.  Many of them have their own political aspirations, and it is in this way that we wind up with a permanent political class entrenched in the halls of power.  If you want that changed, you’d better add this to your list of reforms if we’re going to save America.

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