Gingrich’s first move in 1995 was to dismantle the decentralized, democratic committee system that the liberals and moderates had created in the 1970s and instead centralize that power on himself. Under his new rules, committee chairs were no longer determined by seniority or a vote by committee members, but instead appointed by the party leadership (read: by Newt himself, who often made appointees swear their loyalty to him). Subcommittees also lost their ability to set their own agendas and schedules; that too largely became the prerogative of the leadership. At the same time, Gingrich imposed six-year term limits and required chairs to be reappointed (by leadership) every two years. Finally, Gingrich protected, and in some cases bulked up, the staff leadership offices and increasingly had those offices write major pieces of legislation and hand them to the committees.
These rules, taken together, essentially stripped all congressional Republicans, especially those in previously senior positions, of power; instead, whether or not they advanced in their careers—whether they were reappointed or on which committee they were appointed—would be determined by party leaders based on their loyalty and subservience. (Two years after the Democrats took the majority in the House in 2007, they eliminated the term-limits rule; Speaker John Boehner reinstated it when the Republicans regained control in 2010.)
The problem with term limits in the mid-’90s was not only a loss of experience in a given subject; it was also a decline in the motivation to learn a subject in depth in the first place. After all, members who know they will move to a new committee in a few years are sometimes hard-pressed to really dig into a subject matter. That natural inclination has been greatly exacerbated by the fact that, beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present day, the leadership often dictates to committees what it wants bills to look like or drafts them outright. So instead of learning deeply about a given subject, debating various policy options, engaging in the nitty-gritty of a topic over the course of years and sometimes decades, committee members nowadays are often asked either to reverse-engineer a piece of legislation based on party leadership’s description of what kind of bill they’d like to see or to simply vote on a bill they did not write to begin with. Is it any surprise that, under those circumstances, deep policy knowledge, curiosity, and innovation have gone out the window? “What’s the payoff for doing a good job? If you take your job seriously as a chairman, who gives a shit?” says Bruce Bartlett, who worked as a congressional staffer in the 1970s and ’80s for Representative Jack Kemp, Representative Ron Paul, and the Joint Economic Committee.
As the issues facing members of Congress become increasingly intertwined and technological in our complex global economy, what we need is not fewer people in government who understand the implications of, say, the international derivatives market; what we need is more. And we need them, whether they be knowledgeable committee chairs or long-serving professional staff, to be experienced, well paid, and appreciated so they want to stick around for a while.
The problem, however, is that conservatives as a rule don’t see this lack of expertise as a problem. Quite the contrary: they’ve orchestrated the brain drain precisely as a way to advance the conservative agenda. Why, when your aim is less government, would you want to add to government’s intellectual capacity?
The answer, as some conservatives are beginning to realize, is that making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller. As the conservative but independent-minded Senator Tom Coburn wrote in his 2012 report, cuts to the GAO budget and declines in Senate and House committee oversight activity have resulted in billions of dollars in unnecessary, duplicative, and wasteful government spending. In another sign of dawning awareness, last year the House leadership, having been led astray one too many times by the Heritage Foundation and its Heritage Action lobbyists, barred those lobbyists from attending the Republican Study Committee’s weekly meetings.http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/junejulyaugust_2014/features/the_big_lobotomy050642.php?page=all