Thirty years covering Congress leave me totally convinced the institution is more badly broken today than at any other point in my career, which means getting asked time and again to enumerate the causes for the deepening dysfunction.
Proposing how to cure the place of its metastasizing polarization and partisanship is up to the politicians who work there. But decoding what ails Capitol Hill is the central work of today’s congressional correspondent. And after plumbing the topic with hundreds of people in recent years — senators and House members, staffers and think tankers, lobbyists and advocates — I have reduced what’s a pretty complex diagnosis to five elements.
And they can be readily remembered, using this alliterative mnemonic: Money, maps, media, mingling and masochism.
Citizens concerned about the perilous state of their democracy should be aware how its profound challenges are deeply ingrained, and not only a result of the historic and histrionic disruptions wrought by President Donald Trump. The “first branch,” the nickname for Congress thanks to its establishment as Article I of the Constitution, was splintered and cracked long before this president sought to aggrandize his power on the backs of a compliant legislature.
Here is a bit of a primer about the top five reasons for the Hill’s fractured state. The coming dog days of August maybe permits time to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them in preparation for the midterm elections ahead.
Mr. Hawkings’ Opus: 5 Reasons Why Congress is Broken
“For the love of money is the root of all evil,” the Bible says. And to be sure, nothing has drained the civility and collaboration out of Congress more than the incessant and always intensifying pressure on every member to be dialing for dollars every day.
The total spent on all congressional contests — by the candidates, parties and independent interest groups — has surged 73 percent just since the start of this century, cracking $4 billion in 2016. It’s sure to get higher this time. Through early July the fundraising averages were $7.5 million for an incumbent senator seeking re-election and $1.3 million for a House member going for another term, according to the benchmark reliable Center for Responsive Politics. And 51 different nonprofit groups, corporations, labor unions, and other associations have already spent more than $3 million to elect their favorites. (Of course, the landmark Citizens United ruling of 2010, which said the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting such independent expenditures, means those numbers are never going down again either.)
House members and senators in tight fights for another term can be expected to raise those millions. But it’s not only to pay social media consultants and buy TV air time as Election Day gets near, but also to create the illusion of minimal vulnerability — by putting buckets of cash in the bank long before their two years “in cycle” begin, then making sure to bring in even more so their cash on hand never slips from egregious to merely excessive.
The bulk of members, whose re-elections are not in true danger, are hardly immune. Instead, their charge is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy — by raking in so much money, early in every two-year campaign, that every would-be primary or general election challenger is scared away by the financial firewall. But then those same incumbents are dragooned by their party leaders to go after even more from their constituents and political action committee friends, in order to fuel the campaigns of their more vulnerable colleagues.
Such fundraising takes an enormous amount of effort — in windowless call center cubicles at party campaign committee headquarters, at a ceaseless round of receptions and meals off the Hill whenever Congress is in session, on car rides between the office and the airport. Raising money is what many members do, virtually to the exclusion of anything else, whenever they are not expected to vote in a committee or on the floor. Even those members with the highest ethical firewalls understand how everyone who comes to their offices, from back home or from K Street, is a potential donor.
And so all the temporal and peer pressure of the money chase leaves less and less time and energy for the traditional work of a functioning Congress — studying policy options, promoting legislation, test-marketing compromises, conducting oversight and forging the sort of relationships with colleagues in both parties that might make doing all those things easier.
People tend to behave in ways that bring them reward, and this is no more so than with approval-craving politicians. The country’s demographics, combined with its political cartography, magnify this phenomenon for members of Congress.
A disproportionate majority of House members and senators represent territory that’s almost certain to elect someone from that lawmaker’s own political party, and the genuinely “purple” parts of the political landscape continue to shrink — thanks a bit to population shifts among the states but, much more consequentially, to the way the congressional districts are configured.
The last time control of the House changed hands, in 2010, one out of every four districts (109) was at least somewhat competitive between the parties. Eight years and one nationwide redistricting later, this year’s tight midterm fight is being fought on a battlefield where only about 18 percent of the House seats (77 at the moment) have any real shot at changing partisan hands. In five out of six districts, in other words, securing one party’s nomination is tantamount to winning in November.
And the formula for a safe-seat incumbent winning is in almost all cases a very simple one: make pronouncements, sponsor bills, cast votes and behave back home in all ways that will appeal to the base of your own party — the passionate activists who are sure to show up in a low-turnout primary to either shiv you or save you. Enlightened political self-interest, in other words, far more often means shaping a reputation as a hardened partisan rather than a collaborative, collegial and centrist legislative playmaker.
For Democrats in today’s climate, this means exclusively wooing the center-left mainstream liberals or the farther left social progressives. For Republicans this has meant stretching right to embrace the tea party, but now more than anything it is about declaring fealty to Trump even when his pronouncements about trade and Russia scramble every established conservative principal.
There’s no reason to predict any reduction in the ranks of appeal-only-to-the-base House members. The next round of redistricting in three years is sure to feature at least as much political gerrymandering as went into the current House map — especially since the Supreme Court this spring took a pass on three different cases that could have settled the long-running debate over whether electoral boundaries can ever be drawn with so much partisan motivation that they’re unconstitutional.
The range of media that pays attention to Congress and national politics may have become almost limitlessly multifaceted, but all those outlets for news and opinion have had the bottom-line effect of reinforcing the Hill’s partisan tribalism.
The Washington presence of local newspapers and TV stations has withered significantly. Two decades ago nine reporters in D.C. covered the Indiana delegation and executive branch actions particularly important to Hoosiers, for example; now it’s just one. So lawmakers have largely free rein to peddle their professed priorities and rationalize their voting records without any real-time, on site journalistic scrutiny.
Few reporters are around to press a lawmaker who professes to be a repairer of the partisan breech, in other words, when he takes part in Capitol news conferences or rallies that feature histrionic rhetoric on the left or right. And of course those same reporters are also missing when a member earns positive coverage when a constituent crisis averted or a parochially important bill gets passed.
There’s ample evidence, meanwhile, that voters are tending more and more to ignore or reject information that calls into question their own ideological views of the world. Instead they’re relying exclusively on newspapers, websites, and especially cable news networks with a tone of voice that reinforces their pre-existing perceptions of what’s important, who’s virtuous and what constitutes “fake news.” (A national survey last summer found that 57 percent of the Fox News audience identifies as Republican or GOP-leaning, and only about one in five of its viewers said they voted for Hillary Clinton, while 60 percent of CNN viewers and 64 percent of MSNBC viewers identify as leaning or solidly Democratic.)
The social media feeds of politically active people seem more and more constructed to become their own comforting partisan echo chambers — into which the facts and arguments of friends (and politicians) from the other side of the aisle are not admitted. In addition, if subtle arguments in the pursuit of a middle ground are an objective, then it’s pretty difficult to make a persuasive case given the de facto constraints of Facebook and particularly Twitter.
For all those reasons, members of Congress are increasingly shaping their media “brand,” and the requisite accompanying behavior, to appeal to the base voters. (Many members of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, two-dozen from each side committed to bipartisanship, insist on remaining anonymous for fear of stirring up a primary.)
It’s tough to create and establish a functional and sometimes collaborative legislature when half the members have no personal interaction with the other half. But that’s life at the Capitol today.
Blank stares are almost always the result from casually asking a member to recall the last time spent socially (or away from work in any form) with a member from the other party. The best they usually offer is that they’ve had exchanges more cordial than combative with colleagues across then dais during breaks in committee meetings.
The schedule — with its aforementioned focus on raising money — is largely to blame. Almost all senators and House members fly in on Monday night or Tuesday morning in time for the week’s first vote and head to the airport right after a last roll call that’s most often on Thursday, with fundraising events (where they’re surrounded only by people of the same party) taking up almost all the time that might be spent getting to know someone across the aisle over a meal or a beer. Of course, even the cloakrooms segregate Republicans from Democrats.
Fewer and fewer, in either chamber, find homes in the Washington area and move their spouses and children closer to their weekday work. So the bipartisan family barbecues that helped define member culture into the 1970s (when weekends home were tough given votes Monday morning and Friday afternoon) have become the stuff of legend. In this era of saturation commercial jet service from D.C. to virtually anywhere in the country, the same goes for the mythical days when Republicans and Democrats from the same delegation would pile into a sedan and swap war stories when heading home for longer recesses.
The dozens from the House who bunk in their offices rarely take time for bipartisan schmoozing during shower time in the members’ gym. Some members point to shared athletic pursuits as a nonpartisan equalizer — but the most prominent such event, the annual charity baseball game, pits the blues against the reds.
Veterans in safe seats who can politically afford to take think tank-sponsored study trips abroad, or join colleagues for oversight hearings in other parts of the country, say those afford refreshing slivers of time for bipartisan bonding. And so it’s been headline-worthy how the six Republican and 17 Democratic women of the Senate have a dinner once a month that’s described as all about relationship building.
Psychologists call it the Golem effect, after a clay figure in Jewish mythology: Low expectations placed upon individuals by people they’ve been trained to respect tend to get adopted by those individuals, and poor performance is the result. When everyone notices the low performance, the negative expectations are magnified and the work only gets worse.
This self-fulfilling prophecy is totally applicable to Capitol Hill now. Members have been told by their constituents for so long that they do terrible work in a terrible place. Many win their seats by running down the very place where they want to work. And so more and more of them are taking actions that overtly disrespect the institution, reinforcing the voters’ expectations and deservedly driving the reputation of Congress lower and lower. In a real sense, they seem to be deriving a political success from perpetuating their own reputational pain or humiliation — the very essence of masochism.
Gallup’s monthly measurement of congressional approval hasn’t cracked 40 percent since early 2005 and has stayed in the teens in all but one month of the past year. Late-night comics can regularly mine material from other surveys of voters with higher opinions of root canals, traffic jams and colonoscopies.
Those perceptions have prompted members to deny themselves so much as a cost-of-living increase in their $174,000 salaries for a decade, and to prompt dozens who fear being labeled as having “gone native” to spend weeknights on their office couches. Maybe the public has noticed, but so too have plenty of lawmakers who are perpetually grumpy from a combination of too little deep sleep, too little pay to make their families comfortable while remaining in the congressional life — and too little meaningful legislative accomplishment in return.
Compounding their own self-denial in order to make a political point, Congress has moved steadily in the past decade to reduce its own capabilities and capacities for making legislation and conducting oversight — the only two options available to lawmakers who care about standing up to an executive branch, no matter who’s in the White House, that has been steadily making its balance of power more lopsided.
Members have put their committee and personal office budgets on starvation diets, drastically reducing the median tenure of Hill staffers. The resulting brain drain has only expanded power in the ideologically polarized leadership suites of both the House and Senate, and in the better-paying lobby firms and advocacy groups already derided by voters as a swamp with too much sway.
A more functional Capitol would surely be a place where money was less of an obsession, where mapmaking did not mean electoral destiny, where the media echo chamber was given a wide pass, where members did more mingling and where institutional masochism was replaced with some assertive self-respect.
It’s a very heavy lift, and one that sadly seems destined to take longer than my three decades of covering Congress — and loving it and respecting it every day.