Bob Kaiser, a reporter at The Washington Post for more than 50 years, has written a book entitled “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works and How It Doesn’t.” It tells the story of the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, but it is not really about the new law, it is about the inner workings of Congress.
How does it really work?
In a recent discussion he said, “One of the discoveries I made while reporting this book for a year and a half on Capitol Hill is just how radically the culture of Congress has changed in the modern era. We all know that our politics aren’t what they used to be, but it seems to me that most Americans haven’t really taken in the magnitude of the changes in the last generation or so. I hope that readers of this book will get a good sense of what has happened.”
“Today’s culture on Capitol Hill,” he argues, “is hostile to creative problem-solving. [E]ach bi-annual election cycle has been a do-or-die contest for all the marbles: control of Congress. We now live in an era of constant political warfare and perpetual campaigning.” Nobody ever said war was cheap and far more time than you might expect (or hope for) is spent dialing for the dollars needed to finance the combat.
Fear is a motivator and crises produce fear. For Members of Congress, that means a fear of getting blamed. The risks of action become preferable to the risks of inaction, often leading to poorly crafted legislation.
There has been a general decline in expertise among Members of Congress as politics has gained supremacy over policy. “On financial regulatory reform, of the 535 members of Congress there were two dozen who had a sophisticated understanding of the policy issues covered by the Dodd-Frank bill.”
If the Members are clueless, who does the work? The staff, and the two who “had the most influence on the legislation were women that almost no one in Washington’s hip political circles had ever heard of: Amy Friend, chief counsel of the Banking Committee and Jeanne Roslanowick, staff director of Financial Services. They presided over the careful, line-by-line vetting of the legislation that members avoided.”
“The fact that most members of the House and Senate are indifferent to policy, weak on substance and ineffective at legislating doesn’t seem to matter. As our politics have degenerated into tribal rivalry, the realities of budgets, tax policies, global warming, foreign military adventures and such rarely make an appearance in the one arena that all of our politicians still care about, electoral politics.”
“Here is the most fundamental reality of the Congress: it is an utterly human institution. It reflects a huge, vibrant and diverse human society, the United States of America. Congress is representative in every sense of the word. It represents ignorance and emotion, crass materialism and moral corruption as well as nobler qualities of the electorate. We don’t get a House and Senate that are better than we are.”
As envisioned by the founders, the Congress was to be an elitist institution, always populated by the best and the brightest, yet we are now faced with 535 legislators described as “indifferent to policy, weak on substance and ineffective at legislating.”
It might just be up to us.