What Is Congressional Capacity, and Why Does It Matter? (with Kevin Kosar)

By Kevin R. Kosar December 4, 2023

The topic of this episode is, “What is congressional capacity, and why does it matter?”

As regular listeners know, almost inevitably I have a guest on my show. But this episode, you get just me. The reason is simple: I have been working on congressional capacity for years, and I would like to share my thoughts and hear your feedback.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C.

It is probably not news to you that the American public is not pleased with Congress. According to Gallup, fewer than 8 in 10 Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.

For sure, part of the dourness is not really about Congress. People are annoyed because what media they see on Congress focuses heavily on conflict and crazy behavior by legislators. The news rarely covers instances of Congress doing good things.

That said, it is still fair to say that Congress is not doing well. Most obviously, it has failed to tackle some of the biggest problems facing the nation, like immigration, and often sits back and lets the executive branch and courts wade into these issues. Which is not how our system is supposed to work.

So what is wrong with Congress?

Many scholars, media, and members of the public diagnose the ills of Congress think in terms of the Three P’s: People, parties, and polarization.

It’s Kevin McCarthy’s fault; it’s Chuck Schumer’s fault. If we had better people, we would have a better Congress.

Others point to the parties. The Democrats are out-of-touch liberals. The Republicans are proto-authoritarians. The Democrats and Republicans have sorted into ideologically conformist enterprises. Gone are the days when we had liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Still others emphasize polarization as the cause for Congress’ failures. We are a nation of red and blue voters and states, so Congress itself is polarized. Gridlock and fighting is the result of Americans being grossly in disagreement with one another.

There is some truth to all these contentions. But these explanations have their own shortcomings.

Critically, the Three P’s ignore an important unit of analysis: the institution itself.

The U.S. Congress is an organization—a firm. Like any firm—a business firm, a school, or a music band, Congress’ performance is greatly affected by its capacity. It can only do as much as it is capable of doing.

In the congressional context, capacity can be defined as “the human and physical infrastructure Congress needs to resolve public problems through legislating, budgeting, holding hearings, and conducting oversight.”  Some specific aspects of congressional capacity are its funding, its processes for executing tasks (e.g., how bills go to the floor), its technology for completing its work, how it internally organizes itself, its leadership structure, and its people.

So that is the framework I and my coeditors and coauthors adopted. And this lens for looking at Congress has proven illuminating. What you see is an institution that has experienced escalating demands upon it over the past 50 years yet has done little to empower itself to meet the escalating demands.

Escalating demands

Over the past 50 years, the day-to-day demands on Congress have skyrocketed.

By law, Congress must fund and oversee 180 federal agencies and 4 million civilian and military employees that administer thousands upon thousands of policies and programs affecting the public.

Annual spending is about $6.5 trillion, which is seven times higher than it was in 1980 and a dozen times larger than the outlays by the world’s largest corporation, Walmart.

The Senate is obligated to review and vote upon 300 executive branch nominees and thousands of nominees to independent agencies, the military, and the service academies (e.g., the US Naval Academy).

The immensity of federal activity also leads to more demands from the public. In the average year, Americans — whose numbers have swelled 45 percent since 1980 — write, email, or otherwise contact Congress between 25 million and 30 million times per year, which amounts to more than 46,000 communications per legislator. That is to say nothing of the escalating demands from interest groups and lobbyists to meet with legislators.

And let me say one more thing about voters: the average member of the House of Representatives has 760,000 constituents. Yet he serves them with a staff of fewer than 20. And the situation in the Senate is even more challenging since there are only 100 senators (many quite aged) who have to collectively serve 330 million Americans.

Yet, very little congressional reform to bolster capacity.

The last major reforms of the institution took place in the early 1970s. And crazily enough, about 30 years ago the people on Capitol Hill thought the public would be pleased if they downsized the workforce of the legislative branch.

Today, legislators have fewer staff (10,000) than they did in 1980 (11,000).

Speaking of staff, the average staffer is 25-29 years old, and most of them will quit their jobs on the Hill before they hit 7 years of experience. They can find more pleasant and more lucrative jobs in the executive branch or the private sector.

Congressional committees, which are supposed to be the engines for policymaking and oversight, also have fewer staff (3,100 in 1980 and 2,300 today).

Congress also has fewer nonpartisan experts working at the Congressional Research Service and other legislative-branch support agencies that help legislators make policy and conduct oversight (from 11,400 in 1980, this figure is down to 7,000 today).

But the troubles do not end there. Consider the committee system, the division of labor with the organization. Which committees work on what legislation—that has little changed in the past 50 years. The House, remarkably, select the chairpersons who lead each committee based heavily upon whether they are good fundraisers and dependable partisans. Knowing something about the subject matter and being good at bargaining with members of the opposite party, sadly, are not the sole criteria for selection to these important positions. The way committees hold hearings looks much as they did 75 years ago. Legislators sit on the dais with one party on one side and the other party on the other side. And they give each witness 5 minutes to deliver a speech and then lob questions at them.

Then there is the legislative process. How about that budget process? We almost had another shutdown on Saturday. We still might in six weeks. The budget process is 50 years old and has very weak incentives for legislators to complete it in an orderly and timely manner. So they do not.

And I would be remiss if I did not talk to you about technology. Newly arrived legislators are often shocked at the sorry state of the technology they have. They are shocked that legislation does not come with “track changes” nor does it typically make clear how it is changing current laws or reference existing programs that serve the same purpose.

Take another example. A few years ago, I was talking to the legislator and he said he was astonished that when he showed up to Congress to work in the House of Representatives, he was handed a pager. He was told that this is members of Congress are notified through when it was time for them to vote. His response was something along the lines of, “why isn’t there an app for that?”, but he did not get a good answer. On technology, work processes, internal division of labor, etc., congressional capacity is not where it needs to be.


To be sure, there is some good news. The House of Representatives created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress—which was a bipartisan effort to work on these reforms. That temporary committee worked for a few years and now is a subcommittee in the House that continues to nudge reforms forward.

Perhaps equally, importantly, I believe that our efforts have begun to help legislators, their staff, the media, and even some voters to recall an important truth: that Congress is the First Branch of our constitutional republic. It is the place where we engage in self-governance and work across and through our differences. And remembering that truth should give us the incentive to upgrade Congress’ capacity so that we can continue to have a representative democracy.

Thank you.

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening and have a great day.


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