January 2, 2020 10:42AM

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Misses the Mark on Congressional Staffing

Most days, the Wall Street Journal OpEd page runs multiple unsigned editorials next to the letters and across from the opinion columns. Last Friday, however, the Editorial Board gave its entire platform to a single composition, titled “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan, Oh My.”

The editorial’s thesis is to “show where the American left wants to go” by presenting Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D‐​Mass.) campaign platform for president, which “exceeds what the socialist dreamers of a century ago imagined.”

The guts of the editorial are 26 bullet points each describing Warren’s policy initiatives, including “Wealth tax,” “Medicare for all,” and “Free college.” After listing Sen. Warren’s various “plans for that,” the WSJ Board concludes:

All this adds up to such an expansion of government that the temptation is to dismiss it as fanciful. But Ms. Warren is a shrewd and disciplined politician who isn’t supporting these ideas on an ideological whim … The question for Democrats: Is this the agenda they want to put forward in 2020?”

For my part, I’d add that Republicans are little better than Democrats on this score, at least in practice (if not in campaign rhetoric). Last month, for example, large bipartisan majorities in Congress passed a $1.43 trillion spending bill—up $50 billion over the previous year—that also raises the legal vaping age to 21. Our Republican president quickly signed the package. The upshot is that both parties collaborated on a spending bill defined by principles of Big Government and the Nanny State.

Setting aside the limited scope of the Editorial Board’s case, I have a bone to pick with one of their policy arguments against Sen. Warren.

Specifically, the editorial’s last bullet point, titled “Miscellaneous,” includes Warren’s pitch to “give congressional staff ‘competitive salaries.’” If the WSJWSJ‘s‘s institutional voice is to be believed, then lawmaker spending on congressional staff reflects the “expansion of government” and even “socialism.”

I share the Board’s concern regarding overweening government, but I think the editorial misses the mark on Congress’s support personnel. Though perhaps counter‐​intuitive, investment in congressional staff is an essential complement to the WSJ’s avowed goal—that is, checking the “expansion of government.”

Of course, Big Government today is largely coterminous with the administrative state. From 1995 to 2017, the executive branch issued over 92,000 rules, compared to 4,400 laws enacted by Congress. The regulatory agencies behind all this lawmaking didn’t materialize from thin air; rather, they were created by legislation, and Congress paired these “delegations” with an oversight framework.

Passed during the administrative state’s adolescence, the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act established Congress’s strategy for supervising the regulators. The Act tasked issue‐​specific committees with a duty to conduct “continuous watchfulness” over administrative policymaking. To execute this mandate, the Act provided committees with professional staffs.

By design, therefore, committee staffers are crucial cogs in Congress’s oversight machinery, and this understanding served as conventional wisdom among lawmakers through much of the last century. Yet this prevailing sense abated during the 1980s and, ultimately, disappeared by the mid‐​1990s.

What happened? A shifting power landscape on Capitol Hill led to the decline of staff, both in status and number.

After World War Two, committees were the most consequential institutions in Congress; now, parties fill that role. Part of the reason for this change is demographic: The parties became more homogenous with the demise of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans. At the same time that party rank‐​and‐​file were taking on hive‐​minds, opportunistic party leaders gamed the House and Senate rules to centralize power in their hands.

For ascendant party leadership in Congress, strong committees were a roadblock to the consolidation of authority. To weaken committees, party leaders sought to weaken committee staff.

Matters came to a head in 1995 on the first day of the 104th Congress, when Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican leadership slashed committee staff by one‐​third, and the Senate soon followed suit. Because it was in the interest of both parties’ leaders to subdue committees, staffing never recovered

For example, there were 2,115 professional personnel in House and Senate standing committees in 2015, or less than two‐​thirds the total in 1991 (3,528). To be fair, party leaders invested in some parts of Congress–themselves. From 1995 to 2011, House and Senate leadership staff increased 35 percent and 38 percent (respectively).

Simply put, Congress doesn’t have the tools to oversee the administrative state it created. The WSJ grows a false narrative when its Editorial Board opines that Warren’s plan for congressional staff reflects an “expansion of government.” In a less sincere tone—his real purpose was power—Rep. Gingrich advanced the same arguments when he dropped the ax on committee staff in 1995. Though untrue and often disingenuous, it makes for a great talking point to claim that Congress should lead by example by starving itself in the name of fiscal prudence. Anyone who claims otherwise is branded as a spendthrift. That’s why staffing levels have never recovered.

In conclusion, I’ll turn to R St. Institute’s Casey Burgat, who’s been sounding this alarm for a while. He warns:

As the size and complexity of the federal government has continued to grow, Congress has deprioritized spending within the offices most responsible for legislating and conducting Executive Branch oversight.