The current state of the U.S. Congress—marked by gridlock and bad legislation—is attributable, in large part, to understaffing and a lack of bipartisan expertise, according to a new report from the New America Foundation. Representatives and senators are barraged with an overwhelming amount of information and the methods they use to handle that flood of data is antiquated the report says.
The study's author, Lorelei Kelly, explains that the problem began to develop after the 1994 midterm elections:
In the mid-1990s the mechanisms that produced the information and statistics that Congress had relied on to produce bills were virtually disassembled. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, many support panels that supplied information and analysis to Congress members were disbanded or curtailed.
As many government agencies have done, Congress outsourced the job to private contractors – in this case, to independent think tanks and policy organizations, which are often ideologically driven. So it is now all too common that the two parties have not only their own opinions but their own facts.
At the time, Gingrich and the Republican leadership began eliminating programs that were vital for discovering and sharing information, such as the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, and the Office of Technology Assessment. Congressional staff was cut significantly, making it harder for them to process the incoming information workload, right as globalization and the information technology revolution started to balloon the amount of data staffers were forced to process.
These bipartisan and bicameral resources were used to provide all members of Congress with accurate information for crafting policy. They have been replaced by organizations that have less dedication to correct, factual information. As a result, policies—and working families—have suffered because of the change.
Kelly offers solutions:
A vital first step: Non-governmental sources of reliable expertise – those without a financial conflict of interest – must step in to fill the information gap. For example, scientists could provide real-time fact-checking support to staff during congressional hearings via webcast, to ensure that erroneous testimony is immediately identified and corrected.
One step forward is to make expert knowledge a bigger part of the policy process. Professors, academic experts or graduate students could be lined up for regular “g-chat” office hours – a sort of 1-800 EXPERT service to help prepare members before hearings. New transparency rules make substantive contributions more possible than ever before.