In a Sciencey World, Does Congress Need More Staff or Less?

Among the less-noticed cost-saving recommendations that the White House debt commission has made that have flown beneath the radar is a call to cut the budget of the Executive Office of the President and Congress by 15%. That move would save $800 million by 2015 but would presumably reduce the number of specialized staff members in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

It's unclear how much impact the commission will have. The vote by commissioners to pass the group's report on to Congress failed today, but prominent lawmakers say they plan to bring certain recommendations to lawmakers for action on Capitol Hill.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have already been waving the flag of austerity, saying that cost-savings was the rationale behind the decision to ax the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "We have pledged to save taxpayers' money by reducing waste and duplication in Congress," said a spokesperson for incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Cutting congressional staff, especially those with technical backgrounds, could weaken lawmakers already poor ability to understand and grapple with difficult topics, such as financial markets and climate policy, says William Hooke, director of policy programs with the American Meteorological Society in Washington, D.C. "This is a really negative thing," he says. "All these issues are so technical and so complicated that members are way behind the curve in terms of dealing with the issue."

Physicist Bill Foster agrees. Foster, who served as a Democrat in the House for 3 years before losing his reelection bid in November, says the lack of technical know-how on Capitol Hill is one of the biggest problems with Congress. A lack of "numeracy" among members and their staffs, he says, has made it very difficult for lawmakers to understand complex scientific issues, including research funding. Scientists and engineers tend to understand the difference between "long-term versus short-term thinking," which is needed to confront everything from environmental problems to federal retirement funds.

Hooke compares Boehner's move to the 1995 decision by Republican budget hawks in congress to close Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, which provided forward-looking, nontechnical reports on scientific and technical topics they found important as well as upon request by members.