The State of Congress: Lessons for Advocates

Give it a try. Walk down Main Street and ask people you meet how they feel about Congress. According to Gallup’s May 2017 survey, three out of every four (74 percent) will have an answer that contains a mix of negative verbs and some juicy expletives about how Members of Congress need to learn how to put party aside or perish.

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) asked similar questions to senior staff members working for Members of Congress. Most agreed that Congress is broken, some probably even mixed in a few choice words of their own as they gave CMF an alternative perspective to the narrative described above.

While conventional wisdom holds that the blame for any democratic dysfunction lies primarily with current occupants of Capitol Hill, CMF’s recently released report, The State of Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and Senate,” suggests that Congress may not be working well because it does not currently have the capacity to work well.

Key findings are as follows:

  1. Congress needs to improve staff knowledge, skills and abilities.
  2. Senators and Representatives lack the necessary time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation.
  3. Congress needs to improve Member and staff access to high quality, nonpartisan policy expertise within the Legislative Branch.
  4. Congress needs to improve its technological infrastructure.
  5. Congress should re-examine its capacity to perform its role in democracy.

Then consider the following statement within the report:

“Congress is receiving unprecedented amounts of information and outside pressure while the capacity of congressional staffs has declined…

We may be beyond a tipping point where there are just too many people, too much communication, too much pressure, and too many crises for Senators and Representatives to manage without some serious rethinking of congressional operations and capacity.”

While The State of Congress looks at this problem from the congressional perspective, this old “recovering lobbyist” can’t help but read that statement from the other end of the lens. Sure, increasing funding for the Legislative Branch would allow Members of Congress to attract (and keep) highly qualified staff and update the antiquated technology they use, yet the report includes some significant lessons that the advocacy community should heed.

Lessons 1, 2, and 3: Be a better resource. If Congress can’t attract or keep skilled staff, lacks time and resources to deliberate decisions, and doesn’t have enough access to balanced information, smart advocates should fill those serious voids by sharing their knowledge while being balanced in their arguments. Advocates who are able to fairly speak to both sides of their issues and understand local impact quickly become trusted “go to” resources for Members and their staff.

Lesson 4: Use other methods to engage Congress, in addition to technology. While the majority (58 percent) of congressional staff believe it’s very important for their office to be technologically accessible, only 17 percent are very satisfied about this aspect. Sure, advocates can make their voice heard by clicking a hyperlink to send a generic form email, but the early 2000s called and they want their emails back. The fact is that technology hasn’t replaced the good old-fashioned face-to-face engagement. Advocates who meet their Members of Congress (in D.C. or the district, doesn’t matter), host Members at their facilities, or show up to town hall meetings (not to yell) demonstrate that they are serious about their issues and potential resources. (See lessons 1,2, and 3.)

Lesson 5: Advocates should re-examine their capacity to perform their role in democracy. Learning lessons 1, 2, 3, and 4 would be a good place to start. Those who do will not only become more effective advocates, they will help Congress address significant challenges that are making it difficult for it to perform its vital role in our democracy.



Seth Turner
is the director of citizen engagement for The Congressional Management Foundation. This column was
reprinted with the permission of The Congressional Management Foundation.

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