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Blog Post | January 12, 2021

Making Government Work Must Be A Priority for New Congress

Government Capacity
Making Government Work Must Be A Priority for New Congress

Over four years, the Trump administration pushed an already fragile government to the breaking point. Budget cuts, record civil service attrition and outright corruption (to name just a few) imperiled the most basic functions of the federal government to near collapse. 

As we weather the final weeks of the Trump regime, Democrats’ surge in political control brings reason for optimism about the prospect of repairing the civil service and revitalizing the public sector. In Georgia’s senate runoffs, the success of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock exposed a unified front of voters who hold self-enriching politicians and government dysfunction as key issues in electoral politics today. It turns out that an aggressive focus on corruption — in this case Perdue and Loeffler’s apparent insider trading, relentlessly hammered by Democratic ads — appeals to voters, broadly turned off by the revolving door status quo. What’s more, historic grassroots mobilization and political campaigns rooted in organizing, have roused civic participation with the hope of turning movement power into legislation. 

For the progressive movement, the field of possibility is widened. But progressive legislation will not be effective on its own. Policy still necessitates a functional executive branch for its implementation. And the pitfalls of well-intentioned but poorly executed policy, like the delayed execution of Dodd Frank, can render even the most significant progressive legislation ineffective. The added gauntlets of obstructionist Trump loyalists burrowing into the executive branch and understaffed agencies poses a unique challenge that congress and the Biden administration must tackle head-on. 

While this moment requires an ambitious agenda, no legislation needs to “take priority” over other imperatives. Congress can move on all fronts at once to revive the federal government and put progressive priorities front and center. Here are a few ideas. 

  1. Congress needs to better fund Congress. This may seem like an odd place to start, but it will be essential if the Democratic majorities want to have any hope of tackling the overlapping crises they face. Relative to the size of the country and the federal government, the congressional budget has been shrinking for decades, with severe consequences for governance. Overstretched and underpaid staff are more likely to rely on lobbyists to fill in the gaps and less likely to stick around for long before revolving out to K Street themselves. Meanwhile, anemic technology budgets are both an inconvenience and a national security risk. To ensure that resource constraints are not an obstacle to an ambitious agenda, nor an inroad for corporate influence, Congress needs to give itself a raise. 
  1. Re-fund (most of) the federal government. With few exceptions, the size and capacity of executive branch agencies has not kept pace with population growth or with expanding statutory authority. Agencies from the Environmental Protection Administration to the Department of Housing and Urban Development are being asked to do more with ever fewer resources. As the Biden administration seeks to make broader use of existing statute and Congress adds more responsibilities to these agencies’ plates, it is critical that they receive additional funding. Returning to the staffing levels that Trump inherited will not be enough. As a baseline, lawmakers should align an agency’s size with population growth since the 1970s; such a baseline increase is likely necessary to ensure that political leaders are thinking big enough about what is needed.  These increases cannot just apply to Cabinet Departments. Many small agencies have suffered a similar fate with severe consequences for us all. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal government’s HR department, could use particular attention as it will play a key role in broader efforts to expand government staffing. 
  1. Confirm Democrats to vacancies on independent agency boards without delay. Democrats failed to make fighting for seats on independent agency boards a priority during the Trump administration. Now that they have a majority in the Senate, it will be imperative that they move quickly to retake control of these boards. From the Securities and Exchange Commission to the United States Postal Service and the Federal Trade Commission to the Federal Communications Commission, lawmakers must act quickly to ensure these agencies are working in the public interest. 
  1. Pass historic ethics reforms. Trump’s four years in office have revealed our ethics laws to be frighteningly porous. If our political leaders are serious about preventing Trump’s recurrence, they will need to act to plug the holes his presidency helped to reveal. New restrictions on the revolving door, an expansion of the definition of lobbying, statutory requirements for divestment at the highest levels, increased transparency, and greater independence for ethics and investigative officials (among other things) will be key. Frameworks for these changes are abound, including a recently introduced piece of legislation from Senators Merkley, Markey, and Warren. 
  1. Institute new safeguards against political interference and retaliation. The Trump administration’s ability to circumvent and silence civil servants across the breadth of the federal government has been nothing short of fatal. We desperately need stronger safeguards for the federal government’s workforce to ensure that they can carry out their roles, follow the facts, and speak publicly without fear of retaliation.
  1. Extend new protections to federal contractors and reduce the government’s reliance on contractors. The federal workforce is much larger than the number of people who are directly on the government’s payroll. Millions of individuals work for the government through contractors. Many of those people receive lower pay, weaker benefits, and limited job security compared to their counterparts who are directly employed. The Obama administration took steps to raise the standards for these workers and to hold their contractor employers to a higher bar. Unfortunately, Trump subsequently eliminated these protections. As an initial step, Congress must reinstate and concretize the Obama standards but it also needs to go further.  Despite the size of the contracted workforce, we know relatively little about who works as a government contractor and how the growing reliance on contracting has affected the federal workforce and good governance. At least one study suggests that increases in contracting out leads to decreases in racial and gender diversity in affected federal agencies, joining a body of literature that suggests contracting can lead to a whitening of the public workforce. Concerns over contracting’s effects on transparency, corruption, pay, and democratic integrity are also well-recorded.  With this in mind, Congress should make a priority of moving more jobs back into government while learning more about those that remain in the contracted workforce. New requirements on contractors to report employment data will be key to better understanding who is harmed by the over-reliance on contracting and to ensuring that bad actors in the federal contracting sector face consequences.

Header image: “United States Capitol dome under construction” by Akatsha licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Government Capacity

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