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Congress Overwhelmed

The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform

Congress Overwhelmed

The Decline in Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform

Congress today is falling short. Fewer bills, worse oversight, and more dysfunction. But why? In a new volume of essays, the contributors investigate an underappreciated reason Congress is struggling: it doesn’t have the internal capacity to do what our constitutional system requires of it. Leading scholars chronicle the institutional decline of Congress and the decades-long neglect of its own internal investments in the knowledge and expertise necessary to perform as a first-rate legislature. Today’s legislators and congressional committees have fewer—and less expert and experienced—staff than the executive branch or K Street. This leaves them at the mercy of lobbyists and the administrative bureaucracy.

The essays in Congress Overwhelmed assess Congress’s declining capacity and explore ways to upgrade it. Some provide broad historical scope. Others evaluate the current decay and investigate how Congress manages despite the obstacles. Collectively, they undertake the most comprehensive, sophisticated appraisal of congressional capacity to date, and they offer a new analytical frame for thinking about—and improving—our underperforming first branch of government.

352 pages | 51 line drawings, 43 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Political Science: American Government and Politics


“Congress Overwhelmed brings together a strong set of congressional scholars addressing some of the most important issues facing the institution today. It will appeal not just to other scholars but also to observers of Congress, such as members of the media, staffers, and anyone working in and around Capitol Hill. The book offers an honest assessment of existing congressional limitations and how Congress can become more productive and functional."

Josh Ryan, Utah State University

“Congress Overwhelmed brings together the leading experts on Congress to address a critical issue facing American democracy: what can be done to ensure that Congress fulfills its role as a coequal branch in our political system? The volume provides a clear and compelling account of the many challenges facing today’s Congress and offers valuable lessons for reformers seeking to improve the legislative branch’s capacity.”

Eric Schikler, University of California, Berkeley

"The United States Congress is a dysfunctional institution. Congress falls short on just about every measure of its myriad responsibilities. But how is Congress broken and why? Moreover, what can be done about it? These are the critical questions that Congress Overwhelmed seeks to address."

Congress & the Presidency

Table of Contents

1              Overwhelmed: An Introduction to Congress’s Capacity Problem
Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman, and Kevin R. Kosar
Part 1    The Foundations of Congressional Capacity
2              Capacity for What? Legislative Capacity Regimes in Congress and the Possibilities for Reform
Lee Drutman and Timothy M. LaPira
3              The Decline in Congressional Capacity
Molly E. Reynolds
4              How Congress Fell Behind the Executive Branch
Philip A. Wallach
Part 2    Knowledge and Expertise in Congress
5              The Congressional Capacity Survey: Who Staff Are, How They Got There, What They Do, and Where They May Go
Alexander C. Furnas, Lee Drutman, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Timothy M. LaPira, and Kevin R. Kosar
6              What Do Congressional Staff Actually Know?
Kristina C. Miler
7              How Committee Staffers Clear the Runway for Legislative Action in Congress
Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt
8              Legislative Branch Support Agencies: What They Are, What They Do, and Their Uneasy Position in Our System of Government
Kevin R. Kosar
Part 3    The Politics of Capacity in the Legislative Process
9              Still Muddling Along? Assessing the Hybrid Congressional Appropriations Process
Peter Hanson
10           Congress and the Capacity to Act: Overcoming Gridlock in the Senate’s Amendment Process
James Wallner
11           The Issue Dynamics of Congressional Capacity
Jonathan Lewallen, Sean M. Theriault, and Bryan D. Jones
12           Congressional Capacity and Reauthorizations
E. Scott Adler, Stefani R. Langehennig, and Ryan W. Bell
13           How Experienced Legislative Staff Contribute to Effective Lawmaking
Jesse M. Crosson, Geoffrey M. Lorenz, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman
14           Capacity in a Centralized Congress
James M. Curry and Frances E. Lee
15           Congressional Capacity and Bipartisanship in Congress
Laurel Harbridge-Yong
Part 4    Capacity and the Politics of Reform
16           Lessons from the History of Reform
Ruth Bloch Rubin
17           Dodging Dead Cats: What Would It Take to Get Congress to Expand Capacity?
Anthony Madonna and Ian Ostrander
List of Contributors
Online appendixes are available at

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