Opinion: A theory on congressional dysfunction

Faith in America’s institutions continues to crumble, but probably none is held in lower esteem than Congress. If you believe their critics, the House and Senate have become too elitist, too out of touch and insulated from those whom they were elected to represent.

I want to make the case that the opposite is true: The problem is not that congressional leaders ignore the opinions of those who elected them. The problem is that they don’t. Public opinion is often poorly informed, highly emotional and easily manipulated, and a lot of times ought to be overridden. Yet legislators increasingly echo it slavishly, fearful of the consequences should they exercise their own judgment.

Put another way, congressional incompetence stems from the fact that it has abandoned the elitist leadership role assigned it under the Constitution.

Let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

In drafting the Constitution, the greatest fear of the Founding Fathers – expressed over and over again, throughout an extensive literature – was that the government that they were creating would become too susceptible to public passions, leading to wild excesses, loss of liberty and eventually to tyranny.

“The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice,” as James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers.

As a result, Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others took pains that Congress not serve as the expression of public passions, but as their suppressor and moderator. Their concept held that the best men of each community – they were always men, of course – would be vested with the decision-making powers that the people themselves could not be trusted to handle directly. The guiding principle was “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country,” to quote Madison again.

That concept of the citizen legislator, guided by but not dictated to by public opinion, was bolstered by certain practical realities. In the 18th and 19th century, a congressman or senator who traveled from Georgia north to the nation’s capital went by horse or sailing ship; he couldn’t catch the 4:15 Delta shuttle back home to Hartsfield-Jackson on Friday afternoon. His constituents also couldn’t reach him by phone, email or text. His only means of communication with the folks back home was via the mail, which also traveled by horse or sailing ship.

By any standard, then, he was far more “out of touch” than his Washington counterparts today, which also meant that he could operate with a significant degree of independence, at least by modern standards. Rather than be dictated to by public opinion, he could and did make legislative deals, negotiate compromises and apply his own judgment and experience to issues.

Today, we’ve largely lost that capability. When CNN, C-SPAN, Fox and other media outlets are documenting your every move instantaneously, when emails and phone calls can flood a congressional office at a moment’s notice, it becomes much more difficult for members to reach a quiet compromise or cut a deal. Members of Congress are now expected to act as little more than vessels of the vox populi, which is one reason why its more moderate, thoughtful members are fleeing into retirement.

A congressman or senator who casts an unpopular vote of conscience or wisdom in the morning knows that by early afternoon, his or her political enemies will be spreading the news to tens of thousands back home through social media and other means, and by evening political action committees will be raising money off the vote to spend against him or her in the next cycle.

In short, the insulation that time and distance once provided against the passions of the day have been eliminated, thanks to modern technology and media attention. The same is true of another factor cited by Madison, who argued that the sheer size of the new American republic would serve to tamp down populist passions and prevent them from getting out of hand.

The anger and emotions stirred by a demagogue in Massachusetts, for example, would probably be confined to Massachusetts and unlikely to spread to or be shared elsewhere. Even “if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other,” Madison predicted.

That too is no longer the case. The Internet and social media have made it exceedingly easy for like-minded people to “discover their own strength and act in unison with each other,” bringing government closer still to that “pure democracy” that the Founders feared.

It’s important not to paint the past as too rosy. Thanks to this intense scrutiny, Congress today is probably less corrupt by standard legal measures than at almost any point in its history. (But don’t get me started on the legalized blackmail/extortion that is campaign finance.) And if public opinion didn’t directly dictate votes as it does today, party bosses and powerful committee chairs usually did.

But let me add a twist to the problem: In many cases, the “public opinion” to which Congress has become obedient is being manufactured for just that purpose. The rise of communications technology has fostered the growth of a highly professionalized industry dedicated to building artificial yet powerful political movements on a foundation of outrage, then squeezing power and big profits from them. Its practitioners prowl the halls of Congress and cable-TV green rooms, where violations of ideology are easy to spot and even easier to fabricate and exaggerate. Political action committees, Astroturf groups, websites, talk radio, “think tanks” and cable channels — combined, they serve as an incredibly powerful enforcement mechanism, further constraining a congressman’s freedom of action.

They create public opinion, or at least the perception of it, then demand obedience to it. It has become a civic extortion racket. Unlike party bosses of old, these groups have no interest in or capability for compromise or good policy; compromise and getting things done are antithetical to their business model. They feed their coffers off of failure and frustration.

It also sets up a Darwinian process that culls candidates not on the basis of wisdom, knowledge, leadership or experience, but on their willingness to pledge blind loyalty to a pre-ordained ideology. It shouldn’t surprise us that a generation of such politics has produced a body of legislators unable or unwilling to grasp the complex challenges of, say, rewriting health-insurance policy. That is not the skill set that got them there.

The problem is then compounded by gerrymandering, a practice named after Elbridge Gerry, a man who signed the Declaration of Independence. In other words, it has roots deep in the country’s history and has long been considered a barely tolerable evil.

The practice divides voters into districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican, which makes it easier for incumbents to hold those seats against partisan challenge. It also means that there is little reward but a lot of risk in exercising the independent judgment that Madison, Hamilton and others thought necessary to the functioning of a republic.

However, when you take the power of modern-day opinion-generating and enforcement mechanisms and combine it with the effects of gerrymandering, something crucial shifts, because they turn out to be are mutually reinforcing. The congressman or congresswoman holding a gerrymandered seat operates less as the representative of the people in that district, with all their complexities and competing interests, and more as the representative of a viewpoint from which little deviation is tolerated

And of course, all this is built to some degree on the generation and expression of outrage. People have grown addicted to outrage. President Trump was elected on a wave of populist outrage, and his governing style in the White House has given liberals their own chance to revel in that emotion. Outrage feels good; by reducing issues to black and white, good and evil, it offers people a sense of clarity in a time of confusion, even if it’s a false clarity. All the complexities are wiped away, all the troubling nuance is gone.

In short, it’s exactly the situation that the Founders hoped to avoid.

 

Reader Comments 0

1679 comments
FromCobbscout
FromCobbscout

I agree that gerrymandering is an evil that is practiced by the same representatives that are supposed to serve us. It must be stopped if any sort of fairness is to prevail.


I don't believe that the founders of our country could ever envision the amount of money that is now involved in politics. The amount it costs to run an election, to stay in office, and pay a staff. Plus, the cost of usually having the pay outrages fees to live in D.C. or Maryland, or to support 2 homes. 


The Ossoff-Handel election cost $50 MILLION for that single seat. 


I think that all elected officials (local, state, federal) consider money to be their primary and most constant worry. And, if the person decides to make politics their career then a corruption occurs. They are now working for them self not for their constituents. If they know their job will only last 4 or 6 years, they will have a totally different mindset than if they are looking at a 30 or 40 year job.

One thing mentioned in the article that made me raise my eyebrows was the part about how much quicker everything is now than back then -- communications, travel, etc. "... it becomes much more difficult for members to reach a quiet compromise or cut a deal".  I think telephones, faxes, emails make it much easier to reach a compromise or deal because it doesn't take weeks or months for a letter to reach the other party.


Ficklefan
Ficklefan

Congratulations on an excellent column.  I knew you still had it in you. Your TDS meds must have, at least temporarily, kicked in. Congrats on seeking much needed help. "Hi. My name is Jay, and I have Trump Derangement Syndrome."  Now, was that so hard? 


It would be nice to see Krugman and Pitts get some help too. Perhaps, in keeping with their life-defining ideological passion for the establishment of an all powerful, central Orwellian government, there is a "government program" of some kind that can help also help them medicate their debilitating TDS, even though they have both have it worse than you do.  


Yes. The Founders hated and rebelled against the divine rights of kings, but as you have so ably opined, they were wisely and equally fearful of pure democracy and the passionate and unhinged, howling democratic mobs and built all kinds of protections into the Constitution (including, ahem, the Electoral College) to buffer the Republic against the passionate upheavals, so often generated by abuse, ignorance, or willful distortion of the facts, and outright lying. Activities designed to increase the power and presence of certain constituencies - and ideologies - that would harm and ultimately destroy the republican government system and federalism. 


Alas, despite their wisdom, they could not plan for everything, but they rightly sensed that the weak link would be the legislative branch, and that has certainly proven to be true. We now have a a national legislature occupied by political careerists - not public servants. And we have finally hit the tipping point where the political careers have far more importance than the public service aspects of serving as a Member of the House or as a Senator. 


This abdication of public responsibility and disappearance of conscience, courage, and leadership in any way that would harm a prolonged incumbency (a great political career) has opened the door to the extraordinary and unconstitutional rise of the power of the presidency, the epitome of which was demonstrated once before by FDR (and then reigned in) and then by Barack Obama- who had absolutely no compunctions about creating the largest and most powerful executive branch in American history and a huge, un-elected, extremely powerful, and unaccountable, law writing and regulation making federal government bureaucracy. And, it would have grown exponentially under Hillary had she not blown the election. 


Yes, Trump is a bull in the China shop.  And yes, a sometimes clueless and always disruptive and politically incorrect force. He does not know what he is doing most of the time, and he is uncontrollable. There has never been another president in our history so adept at causing/creating self-inflicted wounds and problems. But, he is a patriot. He loves this country. He wants the best for everyone in it. He knows how to engage and negotiate, unlike his predecessor. He stands up strongly against America's enemies and does not have his State Department working every day to think up excuses for why America  is no longer a moral force in the world. And yes. He came along, hopefully, just in the nick of time.


If Americans could empty their minds of our political leanings, ideologies, and biases, and just purely focus on what is best for our constitutional, federal, democratic/republican system of government and how to keep it around for another 200 plus years, Trump would be getting a lot more credit for stopping the huge and growing Swamp Train, adding cars and sucking up more power and control at every stop, than he is getting.  

SomeonesDad2
SomeonesDad2

What your theory on liberal dysfunction?

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

Triple Down is still trying to change the conversation from his lie that Obama got everything he wanted from the R's.   He's gone to his go to - long C&P's.

I'm out

StraightNoChaser
StraightNoChaser

td1234 2 minutes ago

@StraightNoChaser @Kamchak You do not listen to Rush and got your propaganda from Media matters. You believe the lies and repeat the lies so therefore you are lying.


“These storms, once they actually hit, are never as strong as they're reported,” Limbaugh claimed on his syndicated radio show. He added that “the graphics have been created to make it look like the ocean's having an exorcism, just getting rid of the devil here in the form of this hurricane, this bright red stuff.”

~~~~Rush Windbag

td1234
td1234

@StraightNoChaser Wow, now you actually posted evidence to back up his claim as accurate. 


The so called experts said Miami was going to get hit by a Cat 5 at the very time he made the statement. What was Miami hit with? 


Damn girl, you stepped in that one big time. LMAO


Rush was absolutely correct. 

StraightNoChaser
StraightNoChaser

@td1234 @StraightNoChaser Where does Rush live in Florida?  He lives in palm beach right?  That did get slammed and ripped to shreds no matter what the category was. It does not matter what the number was there was no fake hype.  So why the hell are you talking about Miami?  He was talking about where he lives, he was talking about every where.  Rush never said any geographical area so why are you lying?

td1234
td1234

@StraightNoChaser You do know that West Palm is about 60 to 90 miles north of Miami and if Miami had been hit by a Cat 5 then West Palm would have been hit by a Cat 5? 


Was any part of FL hit by a Cat 5? 


Rush told the truth and you got caught supporting his truth telling. LMAO


BTW: You have probably never listened to Rush in your entire life. 

StraightNoChaser
StraightNoChaser

@td1234 @StraightNoChaser You are right, I would rather listen to someone scratch their nails across a black board than listen to Rush.  Category 4 is just as dangerous as a 5 which is what Irma was when she slammed into Florida.  It was dangerous and irresponsible for Rush Windbag to down play a hurricane warning, it does not matter what the number was when it hit.  People die in hurricanes, oh you don't know that?  Then if anyone was stupid enough to stick around after listening to Rush then I say they are where gawd wants them to be.

JayBook
JayBook moderator

@td1234 @StraightNoChaser Can you quote these experts who said Miami would be hit by a Cat 5?


Because the map below, and many others, suggest otherwise. It suggests a Cat 4 prediction.


Also, your theory -- which of course would be Rush's theory first -- seems to be that the hurricane experts KNEW that Irma was going to shift further west but lied to the public in order to foment unnecessary panic.

Also, that the hurricane experts all conspired to falsely report wind speeds of excess of 185 mph, etc.


Which is frankly a really stupid theory.

InTheMiddle2
InTheMiddle2

@JayBook @td1234 @StraightNoChaser They did not specifically say Miami, however -

Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said that a mandatory evacuation for tourists will begin at sunrise Wednesday and an evacuation plan for residents will begin later that evening.

"For the Florida Keys, if you were to create the worst case scenario that is what we are looking at," Monroe County Emergency Operations Center Director Martin Senterfitt told CBS Miami. "We're emphatically telling people you must evacuate; you can not afford to stay on an island with a Category 5 hurricane coming at you."

Clark said government offices, parks and schools will close and there will be no shelters in Monroe County. The county's three hospitals are also beginning evacuation plans.

InTheMiddle2
InTheMiddle2

@JayBook @td1234 @StraightNoChaser And there was this. "If it stays on the forecast track and reaches the Florida Straits, the water there is warm enough that the already "intense" storm could become much worse with wind speeds potentially reaching 225 mph, warned Kerry Emanuel, an MIT meteorology professor.

JayBook
JayBook moderator

@InTheMiddle2 @JayBook @td1234 @StraightNoChaser "If" it stays on the track and "If" it reaches the Florida straits, it "COULD" become much worse are warnings, not predictions.

And the quote cited by DiA proved exactly accurate. The Keys did indeed take a terrible blow, and a lot more people would have died if they had taken Limbaugh's advice.

Again, it's a stupid theory propagated by an amoral cretin who has found a market among the stupid.  As George Carlin once noted, "think about how dumb the average person is. Then think about the fact that half the people are dumber than that."

td1234
td1234

Excellent. 


"WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Wednesday will stop issuing certain kinds of visas to some citizens of Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone because the nations are not taking back their citizens the United States wants to deport.

The new policies, laid out in State Department cables sent on Tuesday and reviewed by Reuters, are the latest example of U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to crack down on immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

The cables, sent by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to consular officials around the world, said the four countries were “denying or unreasonably delaying” the return of their citizens from the United States, and that visa restrictions would be lifted in a country if it accepted its deportees.

The State Department declined comment on the cables, saying it would not discuss internal communications."


http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-visas-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-wont-issue-some-visas-in-four-nations-in-deportation-crackdown-idUSKCN1BO1W4

Mary
Mary

can you imagine listening to the audio version of hillary's book?

No!

Kamchak
Kamchak

Rush

LOL!

And there's your sign.

StraightNoChaser
StraightNoChaser

@Kamchak Rush told all of his listeners in Florida not to believe what was being said about Irma and evacuated out the back door while they stayed in Florida.  You have to be stupid if you are still listening to what Rush windbag is saying about hurricanes.  

td1234
td1234

@StraightNoChaser @Kamchak You do not listen to Rush and got your propaganda from Media matters. You believe the lies and repeat the lies so therefore you are lying.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234 @StraightNoChaser @Kamchak  You're the guy who posted that there have been hurricanes for "billions and billions and billions of years" - complete fabrication and only believed by people with no knowledge of science.

td1234
td1234

Amen and Amen. I could not say it better. 


"If climate change is as real as they believe, why do they have to lie? Why they have to tell people Hurricane Irma is the strongest and the most dangerous and the most damaging hurricane that's ever hit, when it's number seven? And that's among the hurricanes we know. Hurricanes have been hitting various landmasses for billions and billions and billions of years."


Rush

StraightNoChaser
StraightNoChaser

@td1234 Why did Rush flee Florida after saying that Irma hype was a lie?  And you still feel the need to amen what he says.  LOL

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234  Billions and billions of years!  LOLOLOLOL.  Why do RWNJs exaggerate? 

The earth has only had something approximating to its current atmosphere for about 500 million years.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

Today, in amazing things you learn on the Bookman blog. 

Obama got every single thing he wanted from Republicans 

I'm pretty sure that Obama, and Merrick Garland, would disagree on this.

td1234
td1234

@PaulinNH He was not going to get Garland and he knew it. He played you progs like a fiddle with that one. 

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234 @PaulinNH  Ah - the famous TD goalpost move.  Obama didn't want Garland to be on the SCOTUS!!! LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL - deep breath - LOLOLOLOLOL

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

@PaulinNH @td1234  Didn't want Garland on the Supreme Court yet nominated him...Td loves making up stuff haha

td1234
td1234

@PaulinNH @td1234 Did I say he did not want or did I say he knew he was not going to get? 


If he thought he was going to get another SCOTUS justice then he would have nominated another far left one. 


You were played by Obama.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234 @PaulinNH  Dang - you really do need to take a remedial English class.  You stated: Obama got every single thing he wanted from Republicans  

He nominated Garland - he didn't get Garland approved

td1234
td1234

@BuckeyeGa Who cares if he wanted him or not because he knew going into the nomination that he was not going to get another pick on the SCOTUS. 


He attempted to place pressure on moderate Republicans by nominating a moderate left winger but it did not work.

td1234
td1234

@PaulinNH And then I revised the statement a little. 


If Obama wanted a SCOTUS justice then he would have nominated Gorsuch himself. 

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234 @PaulinNH  LOLOLOL!!! More BS and obfuscation from Triple Down.  You said - and I quote for the 3rd time - Obama got every single thing he wanted from Republicans 

He wanted Garland - he didn't get him

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

@td1234 @BuckeyeGa  You said Obama got everything he wanted now you're saying who cares if Obama wanted him..lololol

straker
straker

Down - "why do you think it"  Because, they hated Hillary.

JohnQ2
JohnQ2

Comrade Jay Bookman prefers the Duma in the U.S.S.R as opposed to the U.S. Congress. 

Jay and his ilk hate the U.S. and what we stand for.

honested
honested

@JohnQ2 

There is no USSR, ray-gun made them all business friendly.....see how that worked out.

The US Congress is unfortunately under the control of the same sort of Oligarch Lackeys (OL's) as the Duma...your people.

Nobody on here hates the US, unless you want to speak for yourself.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@JohnQ2  The USSR?  Someone just woke from a 30 year nap?

straker
straker

Down - "absolutely"  Then why were all those crowds, and Trump, yelling "lock her up"?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

@straker  I'm not sure.  I've never attended a Trump rally.  Why do you think it?