AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Congressional dysfunction. It's a phrase so common these days it's almost cliche. But why is Congress so dysfunctional? Lee Drutman of the think tank New America says one reason outside of partisan gridlock is the quality and quantity of congressional staffers. He says both have fallen in this era of budget cutting. Lee Drutman joins us now in the studio.
Welcome to the program.
LEE DRUTMAN: It's a pleasure to be with you, Audie.
CORNISH: All right, so even C-SPAN span junkies don't get to see the congressional staffers very often, right? They're really behind-the-scenes. So just remind us what exactly they do.
DRUTMAN: Well, they do pretty much everything. They often are the ones coming up with the policy ideas. They're the ones briefing the Senators and the members of Congress. They're writing the talking points for them. They're setting up the hearings. They're doing pretty much everything.
CORNISH: So talk about their salaries.
DRUTMAN: Well, they're pretty much getting paid peanuts, especially by Washington, D.C. standards. Washington is one of the most expensive cities to live in, and congressional staff salaries have been steadily declining. It's hard to attract and retain the top talent when you expect them to work incredibly long hours and very demanding, high-pressure work and getting paid very little for it.
CORNISH: So what do you think are the consequences of that in terms of the relationship with K Street, meaning the lobbyists?
DRUTMAN: Well, what's happened is that turnover on the Hill has steadily increased because it's just really hard for folks to justify taking these low salaries for an extended period of time. So you constantly have a new batch of staffers coming in, learning the ropes, and they don't have the time, they don't have the capacity, they don't have the knowledge.
And where they turn is to the many lobbying shops who come and knock on their door and say, let us tell you how to think about energy policy or pharmaceutical policy. And this is what you see over and over again in Washington, is that the lobbyists are basically writing the bills. And it's because they're the ones with the expertise and the knowledge.
CORNISH: Now what makes you think that a fleet of government staffers would do any better? I mean, wouldn't they still kind of reflect their partisan bosses?
DRUTMAN: There was a time when you had people who made a career in Congress. You need your own independent judgment to know when somebody's trying to pull a fast one on you, and it takes time to develop that knowledge. It takes time to understand how Congress works, how the legislative process works.
And the lobbyists are representing a client. They're representing a narrow interest. The staffers are the only folks in a position to think broadly on behalf of all of their constituents. It's not the lobbyists' job to think on behalf of everybody in this country or every constituent of a member of Congress. It is the staffers' job.
CORNISH: Do you get any sense that there is a movement on Capitol Hill to say actually, there are reasons related to democracy that we should improve the situation?
DRUTMAN: Well, I think one of the things that you've seen over the last few years is that Republicans in Congress have become incredibly frustrated with their inability to compete against the executive branch. They understand that they don't have the resources, whereas the executive branch has a lot more resources...
CORNISH: ...In terms of coming up with legislation and ideas?
DRUTMAN: They feel that the executive branch has a lot more resources in terms of pushing policy, terms of coming up with ideas, and that the Republicans in Congress have been incapable of responding to what they feel is runaway executive power under President Obama.
And they've come to understand that part of the reason is that they have limited their own policy expertise and capacity. So I think you're starting to see Republicans looking at whether the fact that they've cut their own budget so much has in fact come to undermine their power.
CORNISH: That's Lee Drutman. He's a senior analyst for the think tank New America. Thank you for coming in.
DRUTMAN: It was a pleasure to be with you, Audie.
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