How to Help Republicans Talk to Democrats in Congress Again

Americans are more politically divided now than at any point in several decades.[1] Heavy partisanship is no surprise in this internet age when it is easier than ever for one to build echo chambers from agreeable news sources and discussants. It’s easy to hate “the other” and even easier to find an echo chamber of nameless compatriots.

Partisanship in Congress ought to be a different story. As opposed to commenters in an online forum, members of Congress see each other regularly, must be polite to each other, and must see their common humanity. This makes the biting, invidious partisanship of Congress all the more surprising. In the previous decade, Congressional partisanship has gone through the roof.[2] Bipartisan working groups have diminished. Bipartisan lunches and recreational activities are almost non-existent.

Inter-party personal relationships in Congress are essential to the success of bipartisan lawmaking, as they help prevent the Republican and Democrat factions from devolving into echo chambers themselves. The lack of mere inter-party friendliness, regardless of all else, helps explain Congress’s inability to pass major legislation. Instead, Republicans opt to pass delicate legislation on healthcare and tax reform through the reconciliation process, a special Congressional procedure that only requires fifty-one votes to pass instead of the sixty normally needed.

Solving the partisan plague across the country is difficult beyond belief, but perhaps alleviating it in Congress is simpler. A behind-the-scenes change could take place: the hiring of nonpartisan committee staffers.

Committee staffers are a lynchpin in the lawmaking process. Unlike personal staffers or aides, committee staffers deal with one specific policy area and, per the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, should work for the benefit of their committee as a whole rather than the needs of a particular party or Congressperson. Because of the long hours, low pay, and relatively low prestige of the job, often committee staffers are recent college graduates who work at lightning speed to become experts in their committee’s specific area of public policy.

By the 1960s, committee staffs failed to be the nonpolitical bastions the law demanded. Instead, committee chairs often hired staffers for their party loyalty. Staffers aligned with the chairperson’s party were hired more than those loyal to the opposition at a rate of ten to one.[3]

Further change came in the 1990s during Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker of the House. Feeling that he could pass more legislation by galvanizing his base than compromising with Democrats, Gingrich took measures to unite Republicans. One way was to cut Congress’s research budget so individual members had to rely on Gingrich’s staff for research instead of their own (party leaders receive more funding for staff than general members of Congress do).

In all, Gingrich eliminated one third of both House committee staff and legislative support staff, including the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and the Office of Technology Assessment.[4] During Gingrich’s tenure, the number of House committee hearings fell by almost half, far outpacing the more modest decrease in Senate committee hearings. [5] Votes on legislation also began to fall strictly on party lines.[6]

In the end, Gingrich achieved his goal of uniting Republicans around his vision. The Republican-controlled House passed bills so quickly that Saturday Night Live wrote a satirical sketch of the Gingrich passing ten bills in under a minute, without his members taking any time to consider the bills. To ensure his bills became law, Gingrich struck compromises with President Bill Clinton that received easy backing from the united Republicans. As a result, Congress passed landmark legislation, like comprehensive welfare reform and a balanced budget.

In the wake of Gingrich’s resignation from Congress in 1998, lobbyists descended on Capitol Hill to fill the research void. Republicans and Democrats would only read research from lobbyists on their own side.

Today the staffing shortage leads many members of Congress to fall in line behind their party leader instead of analyzing independent research. Again, the driving force here is the lack of resources members of Congress possess to give legislation the attention it deserves.

To combat lobbyist influence, and to help Republicans and Democrats speak the same language again on public policy, the solution is not to spend years passing a Constitutional amendment to limit what lobbyists can spend. Rather, legislators should be provided with enough funding for research that they do not need the lobbyists in the first place.

What Congress needs today is not only an enhanced committee staff or research apparatus, but also for committee staffers to be nonpartisan hires — hard workers, knowledgeable in their field who will stay put despite the wind of elections.

The relatively nonpartisan analysis that would emerge from such a system would lead to more cooperation among the parties as sharing the same basic set of facts would make the room for overlap more apparent. Because both parties would have to work with the same staffers, Congressional leaders would hire staffers based on merit, not party affiliation. Over time, the stable cadre of young committee staffers would be able to write more critical reports as they become more experienced.  It is difficult to achieve this level of accuracy today because the staffers shuffle after every change in Congressional leadership.

In the decades after World War II, consistent Democrat control of the House made this concern null and void. Over the past two decades however, with control of the House a hot potato between Democrats and Republicans, this fault in the committee staffing schema has been exposed to the fullest.

The enhanced job security of a nonpartisan staffing system would encourage staffers to stay on Capitol Hill for many years. This is far preferable to the system today where pay is so low and job security so faint that staffers get jobs in the private sector or in other areas of government at the first opportunity; very few people can survive on Capitol Hill for more than a few years.[7]

Of course, lobbyists will still play the valuable, necessary role of representing the positions of their powerful backers. However, members of Congress will finally be able to break free of the information monopoly lobbyists have today due to Congress’s lack of resources to consistently do its own research.

Designing a system that encourages committee staffers to stay at their positions regardless of the majority party will benefit the staffers themselves, Congress, and the American people. Members of Congress will be able to debate using the same grounding in the facts, a grounding based in a more accurate analysis of public policy. Bipartisan working groups of moderates will begin again and more laws will be passed.

Though there still will be vigorous disagreement on most legislation, a general understanding of each other’s positions and their humanity will emerge. Once members of Congress can reason with their opponents, then the path will appear for average Americans to do the same.

[1] Pew Research Center, “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider,” Pew Research, October 5, 2017.

[2] Ross Pomeroy, “Political Partisanship: In Three Stunning Charts,” Real Clear Science, last modified April 24, 2015.

[3] James D. Cochrane, “Partisan Aspects of Congressional Committee Staffing,” The Western Political Quarterly 17, no. 2 (1964): 341.

[4] Lee Drutman and Steven Teles, “Why Congress Relies on Lobbyists Instead of Thinking for Itself,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2015.

[5] Bruce Bartlett, “Gingrich and the Destruction of Congressional Expertise,” New York Times Economix, last modified November 29, 2011.

[6] Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (Oxford University Press, 2006), 180–182.

[7] Stephanie Akin, “Congress Is Broken, and Staff Members Know Why,” Roll Call, August 8, 2017.