A Closer Look at a Congressional Confessional

Congressional Confessional

It’s not every day you get a confessional from a Member of Congress on the sorry state of American government. That’s why I was surprised to read “Confessions of a Congressman” on Vox this week. Honestly, nothing in the confessional really shocked me. After spending a decade on the Hill in the personal offices of three Members of Congress, I learned that collegial griping about gridlock, power struggles and the unceasing campaign is a badge of honor – among staff. It is novel to hear the thoughts from an actual elected House Member.

For those of us who work in Washington, DC our proximity to the Hill and our access to the media covering politics can desensitize us from the people who hope to influence – the elected Members and their staff. If anything else, the Vox confessional reminds us that politicians are people too and sometimes it’s nice to read what they really think when they open up. So in a departure from the normal Four on Friday, here’s a point-counterpoint to our anonymous correspondent:

1. Congress is not out of touch with folks back home

A true statement, but I take issue with the idea that hearing the concerns of the people who voted you into office is “pandering.” For someone who criticizes the cynicism surrounding Washington, the author should remember that their first job as a member of the House of Representatives is to represent the interests and issues of the people in their district. After all, the House is the body closest to the people. It is designed to ebb and flow with the passions of the voter. That is what makes the House unique and so different from the Other Body.

2. Congress listens best to money

The author is on point on this one. The two year election cycle is an unrelenting beast made worse by the amount of money poured in by consultants and third party groups. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Norman Rockwell painting. America is a technocracy where an army of consultants have made politics into an industry all its own. The entry price to run for office keeps many good people out of politics. It is a sad but true aspect of modern elections not just in the United States, but in other modern democracies as well.

3. Almost everyone in Congress loves gerrymandering

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943.
Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943.

We live in a two party system where each party tries to retain its competitive advantage through the census and redistricting. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but job security matters in Congress, especially in the House with two year terms. It takes a freshman Member half the session just to remember the quickest way to get from the Capitol back to their office. For any Member to create relationships, learn the process and actually legislate, they need a second term. I know this idea puts proponents of term limits into palpitations, but the alternative you are left with is a caste of incredibly young, professional, but unelected staff driving instead of just supporting legislative agendas.

4. You have no secret ballot anymore

Newsflash: nothing is private anymore. Identifying voter intensity through consumer preferences and location is nothing new. Yes, it’s taken a more aggressive form through the emergence of Big Data, but what we now know through mining Facebook activity is just today’s equivalent of yesterday’s analysis of magazine subscriptions. At the end of the day, voters can still sign-up for do not call lists and opt-out of e-mail communications with their elected representatives. What people should be more concerned about is how their personal information is used in the commercial market and how much of their data isn’t nearly as secure as they think it is.

5. We don’t have a Congress but a parliament

The issue of party loyalty is something that we should all be concerned about as Americans, but the author neglects to mention that the polarization of the political parties mirrors a polarized electorate. Moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats are largely extinct because of this. But that doesn’t mean the system should necessarily grind to a halt. There are Members of both parties who ardently believe their party’s ideology, but can cross the aisle when the sausage gets made. I’ve known a number of Members who can play to the base, vote their constituents’ interests, but work with leadership. It’s all up to the talent and will of each member to make it work. On the other hand, gridlock isn’t such a bad thing, especially if you believe Congress exists to keep bad law from being passed.

6. Congressional Committees are a waste of time

Ok, this one got my attention. I don’t know which committees the author belongs to, but the committee system is still the lifeblood of the House. Yes leadership has a big say, but the actual legislative product carries the identity of the Committee Chairman, not the Speaker of the House. There are a number of committees in the House that continue to be strong centers of policymaking. How about the Armed Services Committee? Transportation and Infrastructure? Ways and Means? These are all committees where having members with actual expertise is critical to good public policy.

7. Congress is a stepping-stone to lobbying

Washington has become a revolving door and it isn’t hard to see why. Since I left the Hill two years ago, I’ve noticed the burnout rate among longtime staff increasing. Staff make next to nothing in one of the most expensive cities in America. Their peers who went into the private sector are making double their salary with better hours, better benefits and a much better quality of life. The Members are in the same spot. Unfortunately, we have become cynical and polarized as a nation to the point that working for government doesn’t hold the same “call to service” it once did. After constant attack ads, constituent calls that are tantamount to abuse, and a non-stop media criticizing everything down to the color of your office walls, is it any surprise people look for a way out?

8. The best people don’t run for Congress

As much as I’d like the think this is wrong, the author is on point again. Recently, I asked my wife, an attorney for a House committee, whether it was a good idea to consider running for my home district in the future. She looked at me like I was crazy and I can see why. For all of the abuse we dish out to our elected representatives, we lose sight of just how stressful their lives are. For House members, their hopes, dreams and agendas hang on a 24 month election cycle. The need to fundraise is unending. They split time between home and family to serve in Washington and when they are home, Members aren’t in “recess.” Instead, their calendars are booked daily with district office hours, speaking opportunities, and pancake breakfasts. If you are an expert in your field, would you leave to do this? Not many people would.

9. Congress is still necessary to save America, and cynics aren’t helping

Very, very true. Yes the system we have is not perfect. No system created by man is. Yet the American experiment in republican democracy is still the best form of government there is. The author is correct in saying that we need to make the system we have work. That means we all as Americans need to stop the cynicism, remove ourselves from the gotcha headlines of the media machine and simply demand better from our government at all levels.

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