01 November 2016

The Birds and the Bees of Congress: The Real Story of Congressional Action and the Forces Behind Its Success

Introduction

Aside from the original shock of nearly omnipresent WiFi, women and people of color who may not necessarily own land, and cell phones, a detailed look at the modern state of Capitol Hill would leave the founders of our nation utterly bewildered. Scampering along its grounds, dodging groups of tourists on their ways to and from meetings, are lawyers, lobbyists, union representatives, and congressional staffers, among other unelected citizens who, perhaps even more than those chosen by the American populace, play a grandiose role in advancing nearly every bill, personal or ideological statement, and vote on the floors of Congress. Given that the first article of the Constitution fails to enumerate any roles or powers for these unelected political figures, their integral role within the American legislative branch merits the following questions: What underlying forces, outside of our elected representatives, are at work in fostering congressional success, whatever success may be? And, what are the practical and ideological repercussions of both their persistence as outside figures within our legislative process and their increasingly extensive impact on the laws and the beginnings of national political conversations that emerge from Capitol Hill?

In this paper, I attempt to divine the ultimate sources of congressional success, analyzing the forces behind every Congress member, as well as what a successful Congress might look like, when considering its progress via a non-ideologically based lens. This includes, especially relevant for the contemporary Congress, a discussion of the functionality and even the potential wisdom of a Congress that fails to pass much of any legislation. After defining congressional success and studying the factors in its formulation, I discuss the grand implications of a Congress distinctively run by people other than those elected by the American populace, in which our elected officials often only control the ideological direction of their influence in the House of Representatives and the Senate—what many overconfident elected officials dub the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” <1> lexically escaping its reputation as the worst of its kind.


Defining Congressional Success in an Era of Seemingly Perpetual Unproductivity

Presently, there is no single metric that can properly depict the success of any session of Congress, as there is no wholly agreeable sense of what congressional success would actually look like in our contemporary legislature. While many in academia insist upon leveraging single metrics to justify their conception of congressional functionality—the new low standard for our nation’s legislative branch—such as the volume of important legislation passed in any given two-year period, I find much more value in combining a variety of methodologies to evaluate the institution at large, in order to arrive at a definition that both promotes representation for individual congressional districts—yielding a greater consensus of success among all Americans—and an advancing national political conversation, spearheaded—or at least assisted—by those working on the Hill.

To start the process of finding a definition for congressional success, it is worth emphasizing that, given that my evaluation of Congress is from a perspective outside of the realm of political ideologies, it is especially crucial to evaluate our nation’s legislative branch on more than just its productivity. (In this discussion, I use the word “productivity” not as synonymous to “functionality,” but instead, as a depiction of Congress’ frequency in passing legislation.) An ideological preference would certainly ease the process of determining congressional success, but it is insufficient in forming a proper evaluation of America’s legislative branch. This is because success, according to this methodology, would be directly related to the quantity and power of bills that pass according to one specific ideology, and it would often be seen as manifesting very different qualities, depending on the ideological preferences of the evaluator. For example, a progressive Democrat would contend that a Congress is especially successful if it passes major legislation for welfare reform, social security expansion, and the like; whereas, a starkly conservative Republican would view that same Congress with utter disdain, as an institution that has failed her. However, the American populace is inherently composed of people espousing varied—and frequently conflicting—beliefs, with 46 percent of the American populace leaning Democratic and 43 percent leaning Republican, as of February 7, 2016, according to a recent Gallup survey. <2> Thus, it would be unrealistic to enamor oneself with this evaluative methodology, as its depiction of congressional success conflicts with itself when placed in the perspective of all Americans. Thus, it remains critical in fairly evaluating Congress that I abstain from leveraging my own political ideology as a basis for evaluation.

An alternative method, as David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, discusses in his book, Divided We Govern, is to measure congressional success by the productivity of the session and the crucial reform that has escaped the two chambers for the president to sign. <3> Already, many Americans view Congress as dysfunctional, given its members’ frequent inability to form a large enough coalition of voters to even bring a bill to the floor for a vote, and yet, they fail to view their own representatives with such disgust. Take a recent Gallup poll, for instance, published in September 2015, of the American populace’s approval of Congress as a whole, in comparison to individual representatives. When asked about their specific representative being corrupt, 32 percent of respondents agreed, while 52 percent of respondents believed that the institution is corrupt; <4> 47 percent believed that their representative cares more about special interests, and 69 believed the same about the entire institution; <5> 48 percent believed that their representative is “out of touch,” while a whopping 79 percent believed the same of the whole body. <6> Combining that with the fact that, as of February 7, Congress holds a 14 percent approval rating, <7> it is clear that there is a sharp disparity in the opinions of the American populace between their own representative and the entire body. This phenomenon, embodying itself in the strong divide between America’s hatred of Congress and American citizens’ love of their own representatives, evidences a grander characteristic of Congress as an institution: Because members of Congress must both represent the interests of their electorate—or be doomed to lose their throne to an upcoming challenger—when formulating legislation that affects the entire nation, the stark disparity in popular support between individual representatives and Congress as a whole demonstrates the extent to which Americans often accept the disagreement and unproductivity in Congress, provided that their representatives continue to abide by—or appear to follow—their electorate’s demands. Indeed, to many individuals, their representatives’ actions, regardless of their inherent productivity or obstructionism, are consistently what tie them, and their ideologies, to their nation’s legislature. Indeed, the mere existence of a filibuster, one of the nation’s most famous tools for outright obstructionism in Congress, is proof that Americans are willing to even halt the conversation of their legislature, provided that their representatives follow along with their interests. Specifically over the last several years, as the number of cloture votes in the Senate has skyrocketed <8>—evidence of a greatly increasing number of attempted filibusters—this old-fashioned attempt at obstructionism has become commonplace within the Senate culture. Whereas Sarah Binder, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution argues that such obstruction is “irreparably dysfunctional,” <9> it appears that most of America is still reasonably accepting of their own representatives pursuing that very strategy. Thus, a derivation of congressional success from mere productivity is quite unlikely to reach a wholesome consensus among all members of the American populace—especially when unproductivity may be the only way to please many citizens on a variety of issues—similar to the previous methodology.

In order to divine a proper methodology of evaluating congressional success in a non-ideologically backed realm, therefore, it is crucial to look beyond the previous two modes and instead broaden the spectrum of what congressional success necessarily entails. The commonalities between the two methodologies from above rely upon constant, well-planned legislative action. In this sense, “action” refers to the bills representatives and senators bring to their respective floors; the public statements, emails to supporters, and press releases they put out in expressing their ideologies; and the members’ actual recorded votes on all given legislative matters. For, in a non-ideologically backed sphere, it is often crucial that the sheer volume of information brought about from Capitol Hill be determinant of congressional success, as these advancements of the public political conversations often guarantee a consensus of relatively pleased districts across the nation—in terms of their representation—and may potentially bring forward positive future change in the nation’s legislature, through adding meaningful opinions to the nation’s political discourse.

The above method does have its flaws: An American populace that is pleased with its representatives, even when the legislature fails to pass any bill that enters its chambers, may be living with a worse quality of life than that which would be possible should the institution be a tad more productive. Not to mention, especially when much of the contemporary conversation in Congress is arguably false, often as a method espoused by members of Congress to push the waves of public opinion toward their own ideologies—or those of their donors—the emphasis this methodology maintains for a positive exchange of ideas and ideals ceases to matter, because the actual discourse in Congress simply ceases to even resemble its theoretical capabilities. In Robert G. Kaiser’s congressional page-turner, Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, And How It Doesn’t, for example, Kaiser documents the numerous mentions of false or misleading talking points brought on by Republicans as a method of attacking the Dodd-Frank bill. These include a fictional “study,” <10> referenced by Pete Sessions, along with a complete misuse of the phrase “bailout fund” <11> by Spencer Bachus in the same conversation. Indeed, the culture of discourse in the modern Congress has often decided upon party warfare as a greater priority than truth telling, and its results are both a complete lack of clarity, and a foreshadow of communal mistrust.

However, assuming that the action brought forth by members of Congress is, on some level, a worthwhile and positive benefit to the overall political discussion, or that one may separate the useful and the useless action taken in Congress—differentiated by the truthfulness, novelty, relevance of each statement—in evaluating the success of Capitol Hill, this may be the most effective methodology in evaluating a sense of congressional success upon which most of the nation may agree. Specifically in a time when activist obstructionism is rearing its head unlike it has ever before, now may be the most apt opportunity to reevaluate our definition of congressional success, in favor of one that can recognize the positivity and representational effectiveness of gridlock.

The Physical Forces Behind Congressional Action

Now that I have arrived at a rough definition of congressional success, it is possible to enumerate and ruminate on the various forces behind it—those striving to shift or cement a Congress member’s political ideologies; assisting her in drafting new legislation, pursuing new research, or working with the staffs of other members of Congress to reach compromise; or those assisting the Congress member with other tasks, such as easing the reelection process, so that more staff can work towards advancing the member’s political affairs.

It is important to reiterate that while the American electorate has chosen a mere 535 employees of the federal government to work on the floor of Congress, the sheer volume of staff in any capacity on Capitol Hill is far more expansive, inundating the legislature with work from a variety of economic backgrounds and political perspectives. Thus, throughout the development and expansion of congressional staffs, lobbying organizations, and other unelected and unofficial—yet critically important—members of Congress, it has become apparent that, while elected members of Congress certainly may take pride in their influence of the institution at large, the ultimate credit is usually much more due to the people surrounding them, which, for context, numbered to a total of 21,362 full-time employees in the House and Senate in 2009. <12> Indeed, every single person working within any Congress member’s own organization—her full-time staff in Washington, campaign volunteers in her district, interns, etc.—plays a role in managing the member’s own affairs and augmenting her potential to foster concrete congressional action, as described in the previous section.

Alongside those employees working for individual Congress members, in the list of due credit for congressional action, are the people and organizations who push Congress members to adopt certain policies and projects, to add amendments of any size to upcoming bills, and to even write legislation, resolutions, and personal statements proclaiming their newly espoused ideologies. According to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics based upon data from the Senate Office of Public Records, between 1998 and 2015, the number of registered lobbyists has stayed between 10,405 and 14,829 people; <13> however, the total lobbying spending in those 17 years has increased more than twofold, from $1.45 billion to $3.22 billion. <14> This demonstrates a strong and rapidly increasing presence of special interests in the daily life of those at Capitol Hill, thanks to many in the lobbying industry.

Still important are the Congress member’s actual constituents, who may express their opinions in more than just their votes, but in communication with their members’ office. These individuals, often organized through communal or national organizations, provide both ideas and the evidence that those ideas have garnered overwhelming public support to Congress members; as it often is a critical element in representatives’ considerations of what legislative path may lead most clearly to reelection, public support of future action is surely an effective method in wooing representatives to adopt new policies. Not to mention, as members of the electorate, the citizens who frequently reach out to their representatives with positive criticism are likely to be the same who organize more of the campaign volunteership. Those citizens can, and frequently do, play a critical role in the success of their representative’s fate as a member of Congress for more than one term.

Typically more frequently within the radar of most members of Congress, however, are the special interests that often make more of the bulk of members’ reelection campaigns. These are the super PACs—confirmed as an econopolitical practice as a method to use an unlimited amount of “soft money” for political purposes on January 21, 2010, with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission <15>— and the wealthy donors—who often become members within the former category, as well as funding the campaign directly. Given the rapid rise in campaign expenses over the last several years, accounting for an approximately 555 percent increase between the 1984 and 2012, <16> it is more important than ever before for members of Congress to engage those who can finance their future and provide security and stability in a profession holding back any possibility of tenure. The ideas espoused by both constituents and special interests often translate into their representatives’ ideologies, providing direction to Congress members in their pursuit of bettering the legislative progress and America’s grand set of political discourse.

Additionally, a critical element of the success of Congress members is the effect of news media, on both the local and national level. In the same way that anyone addressing the institution may influence the political conversation, news media may simplify, misappropriate ideas from, and even seminate utter lies about the topical bills, holding within itself the grand potential to shift, even unnecessarily, the direction of public discourse towards specific action. In an era when public support frequently engenders legislative action, at least when the given topic is at least in the peripheries of congressional platforms, every institution that can dramatically shift public opinion also holds within itself the potential to shift the makeup of congressional productivity, even if its only motivation is to augment its own revenues.

The Repercussions of a Democracy Fueled by Unelected Officials

Given the previous section, an apprehensive sentiment is very much understandable when evaluating the modern state of the American legislature: What our founding fathers originally intended to be a beacon of—albeit controlled and limited, given the inability of most Americans to vote for any office, and the responsibility of state legislatures to decide upon their senatorial representation—republican democracy has transformed into a haven for anyone with a personal or financial investment in American politics and a willingness to work within the congressional system. While one may take solace in the knowledge that the people we elect are ultimately the ones who determine their staff and their assistants, many of the crucial players in the game of legislation, lobbyists and representatives from large corporations, are solely the product of wealthy and strong-willed special interests, evading any sense of submission to or regulation from the American populace. And, until members of Congress pass more detailed bills relating to what they may not receive from said interests, these forces shall continue to maintain great influence with the members of Congress whom they meet and attempt to persuade.

One evaluation of our Congress’ reliance on so many—frequently wealthy—outside influences suggests that such a wide base of unelected officials forming most of the legislation we see today is ultimately a knife in the heart of democracy. The already limited power of a mundane voter is very easily counteracted with the power of someone outside of the representative’s district who can donate to a member’s reelection campaign, take the Congress member out to dinner, belligerently call and write to her offices, and other tasks often only logistically available to American citizens already endowed with enough class privilege to devote such time to matters outside of paying each week’s set of bills and gradually eliminating debt. Thus, unless there exist specific mechanisms in place in Congress designed to respect the needs of the impoverished in terms of representation, the needs of the people who cannot afford to pursue the above, because they’re already so overworked and underpaid that the costs of political involvement are simply too high, go unnoticed, and the plight of the poor perpetuates within the continued history of our nation. According to this viewpoint, the dramatically expanded freedoms of political speech granted technically to all but nearly exclusively applicable to special interests and super PACs directly conflict with the ability for American citizens of specific—often already systematically disadvantaged, if not oppressed—demographics to engage effectively in the political process, leaving out of the powerful world of American politics all who cannot afford the entry price. There is good reason why many citizens of our nation believe our democratic republic, with its allotted political powers to those of the highest economic class, resembles more closely an aristocracy, <17> shielded beneath the rarely kept promise of equal rights and protections.

My above evaluation of the contemporary external influences on our elected representatives in Congress is not designed to imply that the mere presence of unelected officials on Capitol Hill is directly responsible for disenfranchising those of already disadvantaged demographics, only that it has often held the potential for unethical legislative behavior. The near omnipresence of experts in a wide array of disciplines, however, is often very fortuitous for members of Congress and members of the American electorate. Principally, this is because—along with predominantly identifying with the same race, gender, and sexual orientation—most members of Congress come from very similar backgrounds in their past economic lives, with a strong majority having worked as business people, public servants, lawyers, and educators, <18> despite a much wider variety of professions in the American economy as a whole.

Thus, as an institution established to address the woes of all citizens across America, regardless of profession, it is critical for Congress to have access to intellectual experts in both familiar and unfamiliar economic territories.

With responsibility, the previously mentioned potential for to formulate an American aristocracy from our otherwise democratic republican legislature can transform into a potential for an American meritocracy, allowing the greatest—rather than merely the most wealthy—brains of the nation to lobby and effect positive change, across all economic and demographic spheres, within our government and its legislation.

Weary Conclusion

It is important to recognize that, for the sake of evaluating Congress as an institution, and its potential for success, I’ve avoided actually evaluating the modern state of the American legislature. Instead, for the purpose of discussing the forces behind congressional action, my analysis has remained within a realm of idealism, of a Congress composed of members who truly wish to represent their constituencies, even if they may, at times, be swayed by special interests looking to earn excess funding at the stake of a member’s electorate or the nation at large; to consistently spread truthful messages in bills, statements, and other communications, and rely upon the righteousness of their claims to garner public support, rather than merely the gilded glimmer of an ignorant and lied to, but supportive, electorate; and to communicate with other members (or, more accurately, to arrange for each set of senior staffs to communicate) in productive dialogue, to ensure that each of their opinions better the grand scope of the perpetually shifting American political discourse itself. In actuality, members of Congress have been seen to follow the ideologies of their largest donors, lie to protect the security of their campaign funds, and refuse to compromise. Sadly, the reputation Congress has earned throughout generations as a refuge for nepotism and corruption is not without cause, and the ability of many members of Congress to engage in thoughtful conversation has often lead to the spread of falsehoods that rapidly advance to a counterintuitive and painfully ironic national level of popularity.

All this is to say that, while I attempted to discuss the forces behind congressional success and the implications of the positive actions all members may take, these forces are often the underlying factors in congressional failure, and the repercussions of that transcend far beyond the death of American democracy—they suggest that the work of our national legislature may stand contrary to the general welfare of our nation and even to the best interests of each member’s electorate.

Within this despair, though, is a beautiful seed of hope. It has become blatantly obvious that Congress may exist as a functionally obstructionist, or even a functionally productive, institution. If American citizens presently contend that their national legislature fails to physically manifest either of those two adjectival phrases, we always hold the privilege to, at a minimum, vote in our nation’s elections, and rid our government of those whom we find to be ineffective. Indeed, as President Barack Obama stated in an address to the Illinois General Assembly, “If 99 percent of us voted, it wouldn’t matter how much the 1 percent spends on our elections.” <19> The American Congress is a perpetually evolving institution, so, provided that our voting rights remain intact, the American people will always have the final say about who enters office, and that may just be a good enough start.


Endnotes

<1>
Time, Inc. "The World's Greatest Deliberative Body." Time. July 05, 1993. Accessed March 04, 2016. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978823,00.html.
<2>
Gallup, Inc. Party Affiliation. February 7, 2016. Raw data. Gallup, Inc. Headquarters, Washington, D.C. http://www.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx.
<3>
David Mayhew. Data Sets and Materials: Divided We Govern. 2015. Raw data. Yale University, New Haven. http://campuspress.yale.edu/davidmayhew/datasets-divided-we-govern.
<4>
Gallup, Inc. Congress and the Public. February 7, 2016. Raw data. Gallup, Inc. Headquarters, Washington, D.C. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx.
<5>
Ibid.
<6>
Ibid.
<7>
Ibid.
<8>
Ornstein, Mann, Malbin, Rugg, and Wakeman. Vital Statistics on Congress. April 18, 2014. Raw data. The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2013/07/vital-statistics-congress-mann-ornstein/Vital-Statistics-Chapter-6--Legislative-Productivity-in-Congress-and-Workload_UPDATE.pdf?la=en.
<9>
Sarah A. Binder, "Polarized We Govern?" The Brookings Institution. May 27, 2014. Accessed March 04, 2016. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/05/27-polarized-we-govern-congress-legislative-gridlock-polarized-binder.
<10>
Robert G. Kaiser, Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, And How It Doesn't. New York: Random House, LLC, 2013, 207.
<11>
Ibid.
<12>
Ornstein, Mann, Malbin, and Rugg. Vital Statistics on Congress. July 11, 2013. Raw data. Gallup, Inc. Headquarters, Washington, D.C. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2013/07/vital-statistics-congress-mann-ornstein/Vital-Statistics-Chapter-5--Congressional-Staff-and-Operating-Expenses_UPDATE.pdf?la=en.
<13>
Center for Responsive Politics, and Senate Office of Public Records. Lobbying Database. January 22, 2016. Raw data. Center for Responsive Politics, Washington, D.C. https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby.
<14>
Ibid.
<15>
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205 slip op. at 45 (January 21, 2010). http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf.
<16>
Michael Scherer, Pratheek Rebala, and Chris Wilson. "The Incredible Rise in Campaign Spending." Time, October 23, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2016. http://time.com/3534117/the-incredible-rise-in-campaign-spending/.
<17>
The Economist Newspaper Limited. "America's New Aristocracy." The Economist, January 24, 2015. January 24, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21640331-importance-intellectual-capital-grows-privilege-has-become-increasingly.
<18>
Kathleen Maher. By the Numbers: The Jobs of the First Congress v. the 112th Congress. February 16, 2012. Raw data. The National Constitution Center, Philadelphia. http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2012/02/by-the-numbers-the-jobs-jobs-jobs-of-the-first-congress-vs-the-112th-congress.
<19>
The Government of the United States of America. "Remarks by the President in Address to the Illinois General Assembly." News release, February 10, 2016. The White House. Accessed March 4, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/10/remarks-president-address-illinois-general-assembly.

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