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New Report Highlights Challenges to Congress’ Capacity to Perform Their Role in Democracy

By Chris Nehls / 2017 August 7th

Imagine having a job that requires you to master complex subject matter thrown at you at a moment’s notice in rapid fashion. Now imagine that you have practically no time, training, or resource support to learn that material with any real depth. Nobody else around the office knows anything about what’s on your plate either to even point you in the right direction. Oh, and you’re using a 10-year-old computer and work practices are such that you’re still literally pushing paper around much of the day.

How would you feel about the job you were doing in that situation? How long would you stay?

Unfortunately, for many congressional staffers, this description is all too apt of their workplace. New research authored by Kathy Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) reveals how dissatisfied congressional staff are with their ability to perform key aspects of their jobs they understand are vital to the function of the institution as a deliberative legislative body. The dysfunction that the public sees in Washington, the report reveals, really is the product of a Congress that lacks the capacity to fulfill its obligations to Americans.

CMF researchers performed a gap analysis of surveys they took of senior-level House and Senate staffers, measuring the distance between how many respondents said they were “very satisfied” with the performance of key aspects of their workplace they deemed “very important” to the effectiveness of their chamber. The largest gaps appeared in the three areas most closely connected to the institution’s ability to develop well-informed public policy and legislation and with Congress’s technological infrastructure to support office needs.

Although more than 80 percent of staffers though it was “very important” for them to have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to support members’ official duties, only 15 percent said they were “very satisfied’ with their chamber’s performance.

CMF found similar yawning gaps in satisfaction with the training, professional development, and other human resource support they needed to execute their duties, access to high-quality nonpartisan policy expertise, and the time and resources members have to understand pending legislation. Just six percent of respondents were “very satisfied” with congressional technological infrastructure.

These findings reflect a decades-long trend by Congress to divest in its own capacity to master legislative subject material. Just last month, more than a hundred members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to slash funding for the Congressional Budget Office, despite its integral role in the legislative process.

But as the report concludes, opening the funding spigot and hiring more legislative staff alone will not solve the challenges to the resiliency of Congress as a democratic institution.

The Democracy Fund’s Governance Team has taken up ranks with a growing community to push for a more systemic approach to improving the operations and functions of our 240-year-old national legislature struggling to adapt to the forces of modernity. Certainly, Congress can do much more to support its own internal culture of learning and expertise: but civil society has a critical role in rebuilding congressional resiliency, too. Congress has just started to bring the vast technical and subject area know-how that exists outside its marble edifices to assist a process of institutional transformation. The work of establishing trusted modes of communications with constituents in this digital age, meanwhile, barely has begun.

The CMF report performs a critical pathfinding role, illuminating where the places of most dire need within the institution exist. I read it as an optimistic document: congressional staff know that their deepest deficiencies are critically important to the institution’s health. Energy is on the side of reform. The challenge ahead is not to be discouraged by the scale of the problems but to work systemically so that change can build upon itself and ripple through the system.

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