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Marcus Montgomery

How not to 'drain the swamp'

Trump supporter holds a 'drain the swamp' sign on the eve of the 2016 elections[AP]

Date of publication: 15 November, 2017

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Comment: What happens when a bunch of 20-somethings are in charge of advising and assisting representatives and senators on increasingly complicated issues? asks Marcus Montgomery.
Many Americans are fed up with the nature of politics in the United States.

Donald Trump's election was the most symbolic rejection of "business-as-usual" politics that many believe have consumed Washington DC over the last several years.

If the factors fueling popular disillusionment with national politics can be simplified to just a couple of factors, they would be frustration with politicians' inability to operate efficiently, and disgust with the level of influence special interest groups have on elected officials.

As early as 2010, Tea Party Republicans recognised the anger boiling over in their communities and swept into Congress promising to clean up Washington, DC. Trump later co-opted the frustrations laid bare at the time and, by the 2016 campaign, he was revelling in the chants of "drain the swamp" and rode a wave of populist anger to the White House.

Disillusioned voters from California to Maine wanted a federal government that worked in their interests, not those of big business and its team of lobbyists.

One way to reduce the glut of big government, conservative members told their constituents, was to cut budgets wherever possible. Wilful budget cuts in 2011 and subsequent mandatory, across-the-board funding reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) have drastically reduced federal discretionary spending to the tune of 13-18 percent, depending on your standard of measurement.

Among the impacts these cuts have had over the years are Members' Representational Allowances (MRAs), the money that allows senators and representatives to staff and run offices in both Washington and in their home states or districts. The MRA total for 2017 is nearly 15 percent less than amounts allocated before the Tea Party's entrance in 2010.

A protester stands beside a pro-Trump billboard  Portsmouth, New Hampshire 2015 [Getty]

A protester stands beside a pro-Trump
billboard Portsmouth, New Hampshire
2015 [Getty]

On its face, these cuts likely satisfied those disillusioned voters who were angry with how big the federal government has grown.

The unintended effects, however, actually hurt the prospects of "draining the swamp" and getting special interests out of the US political system.

When it comes to Congress as an institution, members stripped themselves of money for which they can entice smart, talented, and experienced employees to work - and more importantly, remain - on Capitol Hill for more than a few years. 

There are a few reasons why working for members of Congress has less appeal than it may have in the decades past. First, the stringent budget cuts that have been enacted since 2010 have directly contributed to a cut in congressional staff.

Congress members have lost the capacity to employ more staffers, saddling the remaining employees with piles of work that must be addressed in a timely fashion. It is one thing to work in a fast-paced environment, but something else completely having literally more work than you can handle.

Despite fewer staffers, Congress members cannot pay the remaining employees more money.

Salaries for low level staff assistants, legislative aides, and legislative correspondents are dismally low. If a staffer is lucky enough to be promoted to a legislative assistant (LA), or stick around long enough to reach the upper-echelon of office personnel, the pay gets marginally better.

Staffers perform the grunt work necessary for Congress members to be proficiently briefed on key issues

But, rarely do staffers stick around long enough to be promoted multiple times. Washington DC, compared to many places in the United States, is an extremely expensive place to live, and the salaries being offered to congressional staffers are hardly sufficient to cover living expenses, never mind putting money in retirement or savings accounts.

The fast-paced, short-staffed nature of contemporary congressional offices - combined with an exceptionally disgruntled public - leaves staffers from the bottom-up overwhelmed every day on the job, and their minimal levels of compensation is simply not adequate to justify staying in such a position for long.

These factors reduce the candidate pool for crucial staffer positions. Older, more experienced individuals are less willing to juggle large workloads with insufficient pay, so the majority of candidates willing to take the jobs are younger (on average, staffers are in their mid-20s or early 30s) and more ideologically invested in issues on Capitol Hill. 

Staffers in congressional offices are genuinely the individuals who make the legislative branch of the government function.

From pouring through legislative language to meeting with constituents, staffers perform the grunt work necessary for Congress members to be proficiently briefed on key issues.

But, what happens when a bunch of 20-somethings are in charge of advising and assisting representatives and senators on increasingly complicated issues like tax reform, healthcare and government budgets?

It could take years for one to confidently learn these issues, yet hardly anyone sticks around long enough to become specialists in any particular topic.

Herein lies the lobbyists' niche.

The power lobbying firms that line K Street in Northwest Washington DC are behemoths that can afford to pluck the best, brightest and most experienced policy experts away from other organisations and dispatch them to Capitol Hill to "inform" the young, impressionable and less-knowledgeable staffers who handle the portfolios of interest.

While congressional staffers spend their days swamped in assignments and constituent inquiries, lobbyists on the other side of town handle one or two projects at a time and get paid quite handsomely for it.

Lobbyists are successful for a number of reasons, but what really ingratiates staffers to these special interests is the ease with which they can receive timely and authoritative information. Even if a LA is a policy matter expert, he or she likely does not have the time to spend extensive amounts of time researching the recent developments of their topics.

In trying to 'drain the swamp,' politicians have actually jeopardised the internal mechanism in Congress that could protect members from the undue influence of special interests

In trying to "drain the swamp," politicians have actually jeopardised the internal mechanism in Congress that could protect members from the undue influence of special interests.

There are numerous reforms to be made if the government wants to rid itself of big money and lobbying giants, but making Congress an unsuitable place of employment is not an effective move.

Instead, members should be careful to ensure staffers are appropriately compensated and that offices are staffed to their fullest extent, so Capitol Hill becomes a place were the best, highest achieving candidates want to start their careers and, more importantly, people want to stay for years.

This will both make individual staffers more knowledgeable and less susceptible to skewed briefings from lobbyists, but it will also instil a type of institutional memory that could insulate the institution from special interests and help facilitate a functioning deliberative body again.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

 

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