A Small Step Toward a Better House of Representatives

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By Phillip Lohaus, Daniel Schuman and Mandy Smithberger,  originally published at Just Security

Today the Committee on House Administration took a small but important step to restore the House of Representatives as an effective legislative and oversight body. It voted unanimously to increase funding for each permanent committee — with four committees receiving a double-digit percentage increase.

The legislative branch is appropriated 1% of the federal budget to oversee the entire federal government, with much of that going towards non-legislative functions like security and facilities. Congress is woefully underfunded to perform its legislative, oversight, and representational duties, and that has undermined its ability to serve as a check on the executive branch.

In particular, over the last few decades, Congress has dismantled its ability to govern. It ceded its oversight and legislative responsibilities to an over-assertive executive branch and weakened its ability to engage in thoughtful lawmaking. As an illustration, the House has a skeleton crew by historic norms, with 57% fewer committee staff now than it employed in 1979, a drop from 1,909 people in 1979 to 1,100 in 2015. It’s no surprise that people think poorly of Congress.

The most notable increase in funding from today’s vote is in the committee that oversees the intelligence community — the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) — which received a 31 percent increase, to a total of approximately $6 million annually. HPSCI will still be a comparatively poorly funded committee, ranking 12th out of 20 in terms of annual allotment.

In an article entitled Improving Congress’s Oversight of the Intelligence Community, we argued that HPSCI is woefully understaffed to perform its duties. “Last year the Committee had a 33-person staff and a $3.8 million dollar budget (the Intelligence Community’s budget is 18,421 times larger).” That point may have had some traction, as HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA)  referred to it in his testimony requesting additional funds. While this increase won’t solve the mismatch between committee funding and oversight responsibilities, it does start to move us, slowly, in the right direction.

With the new allotment, HPSCI will be able to hire more staff and be able to better retain the staff it has. It will allow for improved oversight of the work of the intelligence community, although more money and additional reforms still are necessary, such as potentially providing staff designees for members of the committee.

What’s true for HPSCI is true for all the committees and for Congress writ large. Today is a small step in the right direction.

About the Authors

Phillip Lohaus is a research fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress and has long worked at the intersection of law, policy, and technology.

Mandy Smithberger is the director of the CDI Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight.

 

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