July 13th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
What now surprises me is when I come across a member of Congress who really does understand a particular issue in detail. And this sometimes does happen. Little pockets of expertise are scattered hither and yon all throughout Capitol Hill — especially when members dig in to work on idiosyncratic pieces of legislation that are off the radar of big-time partisan conflict. But on most issues, most of the time, most members of Congress are more or less blindly following talking points that they got from somewhere else and that they don’t really understand.
Members form identities as a certain kind of politician — a New Democrat or a progressive, a leadership ally or a rock-ribbed true conservative — and then they take cues from how a politician like that ought to respond to the controversy of the day, and their staff hastily assembles some stuff to say about it.
And the problem here isn’t that the members are dumb, as I used to think. It’s that Congress hasn’t set itself up for individual members to be well-informed. Staff budgets are generally low, and a decent share of staff effort has to be put into constituent service and answering the mail. Senators, who have larger staffs, are generally competent to discuss a wider range of issues. And committee staffs have more policy expertise, so committee chairs and ranking members are often fairly knowledgeable about the subjects under their jurisdiction.
But typical members have little chance to build in-house knowledge on policy issues, and as matter of economic necessity skilled staffers have to be looking for their next job. Nor do the members themselves exactly have a ton of time to delve into issues and talk to policy experts. They’re expected to commute back and forth to their home districts, show up routinely at community events, and spend vast amounts of time raising money in small increments.
A consequence of this is that members become dependent on interest groups not just for money but for actual knowledge and information. The typical member of Congress, faced with some arbitrary policy issue, has neither the personal nor the staff capacity to actually research the issue and come up with a fair-minded and independent judgment about the merits of the issue.
This tends to leave Congress members dangerously dependent on lobbyists (or at times pure hucksters) for analysis, which fuels public contempt of Congress, which makes it all the more unthinkable for Congress to try to vote itself the extra money for staff and expertise building that could fix the problem.