Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

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 ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.