Thursday, November 8, 2012
This essay explores a recent proposal to reduce Congressional gridlock by using nonpartisan committee staff. It first describes past and present practice to have such staff serve the committees and a number of legislative support organizations. It then presents and tests a theoretical case of nonpartisan staff reducing gridlock that is premised on such staff having an expertise distinct from that of partisans and sufficient influence to affect legislative outcomes. The essay shows that the meaning of “nonpartisan” is somewhat nebulous and incomplete, which may make it difficult to identify, select, and retain persons with the attributes necessary to support the theoretical case. Staff incentives during Congressional service may further undermine the existence of those attributes. Finally, the essay suggests that the two components of the theoretical case — a distinctive expertise and sufficient Congressional influence — may to some extent be incompatible with one another. If nonpartisan staff must be “neutral” on policy issues in order to maintain their influence in Congress’s partisan environment, they may, in effect, be forced to surrender some of their expertise — their ability to analyze and persuade (in a manner different from partisans) why certain policy options are preferable to others. This “muted” expertise may impair their effect on reducing gridlock.