Republicans have followed through on a promise to cut congressional staff budgets, but the 5 percent reduction is more symbolic than real. Some 23,000 people work for congressional members and committee offices, at a cost of roughly $4 billion, according to Vital Statistics on Congress, which is published by the Brooking Institution.
More staff translates into more potential for mischief — like writing 2,400-page health-care bills. The last time Republicans took over, they made significant cuts in congressional staffs, but even Republicans are wary of cutting too deeply for fear they won’t have enough personnel to do executive-branch oversight. Rep. Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has already announced a wide range of issues he intends to investigate, from the administration’s handling of WikiLeaks to the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial meltdown.
But Issa is just carrying on a tradition that goes back at least as far as the Nixon years. As a young staffer on the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1970s, I saw the staff grow from about three dozen to more than 100 during the Watergate investigation and impeachment period. Somehow, with only a handful of lawyers and a few secretaries on staff, the Judiciary Committee managed to draft and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and the Equal Rights Amendment, to name just a few of the significant pieces of legislation of the era. Now committees can’t manage their duties with fewer than 100 people on board. Bigger hasn’t translated into better.