Roll Call senior editor David Hawkings has been covering Congress for three decades, and he’s convinced that the legislative branch is more broken now than at any other point in his career. Here’s why.
Below is a transcript of the video.
Thirty years of covering Congress has me convinced it’s more broken than at any point in my career — and gets me asked, time and again, to explain what’s gone wrong.
After talking about the causes for this dysfunction with hundreds of people – lawmakers, their aides, think tank experts, lobbyists — I have reduced the diagnosis to these elements.
They’re easy to remember as The 5 M’s — money, maps, media, mingling and masochism.
Nothing has drained civility and collaboration out of the Capitol more than the incessant money chase.
The total spent on congressional races surged 73 percent between 2000 and 2016 — when it cracked $4 billion.
And it’s sure to get higher this time. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which said the First Amendment means not restricting what companies and other outside groups spend, means the flow is never slowing
Members in tight races have to raise buckets of cash, of course.
But those in safe seats are not immune. They have to create a sense of financial strength that scares off challengers — and then they’re under huge peer pressure to raise even more for the benefit of electorally vulnerable colleagues.
So dialing for dollars is what many members do, virtually to the exclusion of anything else, whenever they’re not expected in a committee room or on the floor — in call center cubicles at party headquarters, receptions and meals when Congress is in session, car rides between the office and the airport.
All this leaves minimal time and energy for the traditional work of a functioning Congress — like studying policy options, promoting legislation and conducting oversight.
Most members represent territory almost certain to elect someone from their party — thanks a bit to population shifts, but mostly to how congressional districts are drawn.
The last time control of the House changed hands, in 2010, one in four districts was competitive between the parties. One nationwide redistricting later, that’s true in just one out of six seats in this year’s midterm.
The winning formula for everyone else is simple. Say and do everything with the base of your own party in mind — because they’re the ones who will save you or stab you in the primary, and that’s your only real election.
For five of six members, in other words, what works politically is being a hardened partisan, not a centrist legislator.
There’s no reason to predict that will change. Redistricting for next decade is sure to have as much political gerrymandering as ever — especially since the Supreme Court has decided not to decide if that practice can ever be unconstitutional.
Today’s media landscape only reinforces partisan tribalism.
The presence of local newspapers and TV stations in Washington has withered — so lawmakers have free rein to market their Capitol careers without much real-time scrutiny.
Voters more and more ignore information that questions their views. Instead, they rely on websites and cable news that reinforces their perceptions of what’s important and what’s fake
Social media has become a political echo chamber — with the facts and arguments on the other side not admitted.
Members are increasingly shaping their media presence, again, just to appeal to the base.
It’s tough to create a collaborative legislature when half the members don’t really know the other half. But that’s life at the Capitol today.
Members generally spend just three days a week in D.C. Since their so-called free time is all about fundraising they spend no time getting to know someone across the aisle over a beer or a meal.
Fewer and fewer of them find homes in the Washington area or move their families here, so there’s no after-work bonding or weekend barbecues, which really were a thing back in the 1960s and 70s.
There’s a theory in psychology that low expectations tend to produce poor performance.
When everyone notices, the negative expectations are only magnified and the work only gets worse.
That’s the way it is in Congress today.
Members have been told by their constituents for so long that they do terrible work in a terrible place. Many of them have won their seats by running down the very place they want to work.
And so more and more are taking actions that overtly disrespect the institution, reinforcing voter expectations and driving the reputation of Congress lower and lower.
In a real sense, they seem to be deriving political success from perpetuating their own reputational pain or humiliation — which is the very essence of masochism.
They have denied themselves even a small pay raise every year for a decade. Many of them sleep on their couches in their offices. They’ve put their staff budgets on a starvation diet, which has caused a deep brain drain of Hill aides.
This gives more power to the leadership teams that are all about winning through polarization — and to the lobbyists who hire the smart staffers.
A 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 spent more time making personal connections, and where the institutional self-loathing was replaced with self-respect.