What’s Really Wrong With Congress?

Everybody seems to agree that Congress doesn’t work.

If you’re liberal, you’re appalled that even something like universal background checks for gun purchases (90% public approval!) can’t pass. If you’re conservative, you’re horrified that nothing can be done about the mounting national debt or the projections for exponential growth in entitlement spending.

And even if you care not at all about parties or ideologies, it’s just embarrassing to watch our leaders create one artificial crisis after another. We’re the richest country on the planet, and yet we’re constantly threatening to shut down our government, default on our bonds, mint a trillion-dollar coin, or do some other weird thing that would shame the generalissimo of a banana republic.

Is this any way to run a super power?

Former Congressman Tom Allen has written the best book I’ve seen about the problem — Dangerous Convictions: What’s really wrong with the U.S. Congress.

Allen served as one of Maine’s two congressmen for six terms before he quit to run for the Senate in 2008. (Susan Collins beat him handily.) He seems to have been a more-or-less average Democrat. (GovTrack.com places him in the middle of the Democratic pack ideologically.) In his book, he discusses the few times he was able to work with Republicans, the many times he wasn’t, and what the difference might have been.

He is unimpressed with many of the standard explanations of Congress’ polarization and overall dysfunctionality, particularly the ones that attribute the problem to personalities. Yes, Democrats and Republicans no longer socialize together the way they did back in Jackie Kennedy’s day. But Allen sees that more as symptom than cause. Republican congressmen seemed like nice enough guys when he met them in the House gym, and he had no trouble working with them when they shared an interest, like when Maine and New Hampshire politicians all wanted to keep the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard open.

And while mainstream pundits may pine for “bipartisanship”, the lack of it is also an empty explanation. There is no bipartisan philosophy, so what would a bipartisan alliance do? (Whenever a pundit gets specific about a bipartisan agenda, some rude person points out that Obama has already proposed most of it and been rejected.)

Allen saw enough pre-Obama polarization to doubt the explanations that pin the blame on him. (i.e., Obama doesn’t schmooze enough, or twist enough arms.)

Even the influence of money doesn’t really explain the problem (though it certainly doesn’t help). The United States has suffered periods of even worse corruption in the past — among the many candidates, I would pick the Grant era — and yet the country managed to more-or-less function.

Worldviews. Allen sees the problem not as an unwillingness to find common ground, but as an inability to get to a point where compromise is possible. Take global warming. If Democrats were pushing one solution (cap-and-trade, say, or a carbon tax) and Republicans another, then it might not be that hard to pass a program with elements of each. That’s how business has gotten done in Washington since L’Enfant sketched the city on paper.

But instead, a proposed Democratic solution is met with a Republican denial that the problem exists. How do you compromise on that?

Four chapters of Allen’s book focus on specific issues and the worldview gaps that have made them unsolvable: the federal budget (where Democrats can’t accept the Republican claim that tax cuts pay for themselves), Iraq (where a plan for the country’s reconstruction was deemed unnecessary), health care (where Republicans never really admitted that the uninsured were a problem), and global warming.

Again and again, Allen and his Democratic colleagues ended up asking each other, “Do these guys really believe what they’re saying?” Unable to imagine that they did, the only other explanations were that the other side had been bought by monied interests or that they were pandering to crazy people. Hence the distrust and unwillingness to invite them to parties.

That view, obviously, favors Allen’s own side. But he then makes an admirable effort to see through Republican eyes. What if they do believe what they’re saying, but their worldview is so different that we seem to be the ones who must have nefarious motives? How could that come about?

The explanation he comes to still favors the Democrats, but is much more nuanced and fascinating.

First and second languages. Allen begins with a deep insight from Robert Bellah’s 1985 classic Habits of the Heart: Americans discuss values and morality in two ways. Our first language is individualistic: It’s my life. This is what I want to do with it. I want the freedom to be my own person and live by my own values. Our second language (which we speak less well) is communitarian: I want to belong. I want to do right by others. I want to live in a community that is just and fair.

We don’t really have a language for discussing the trade-offs between individuality and community. Instead, we tend to flip abruptly from one to the other: We’re individualists until suddenly we sense that we’ve gone too far, and then we’re communitarians for a while.

(This insight parallels George Lakoff’s models of the conservative strict-father morality and the liberal nurturant-parent morality, particularly as I adjusted them in Red Family, Blue Family in 2005. Lakoff observes that there is no “center” morality. Instead, centrists maintain both models and apply different ones to different issues.)

Conservative rhetoric speaks the first language, which is why it often sounds simpler and clearer. (Small government. Low taxes.) Liberal rhetoric speaks the second language, so it often sounds muddled and requires a longer explanation than a sound bite allows.

(Allen doesn’t discuss social issues, where liberals sometimes have the first language/second language advantage. Gay rights is at a tipping point now because liberals are winning that debate in both languages: Gays should be free to live their own lives, and my community should treat them fairly.)

This point in history. Two things about the current situation give Democrats the advantage:

  • The shift from a local/national economy to a global economy has created problems that are fundamentally not individual. When your job gets shipped to China or the value of your house crashes, it’s generally not because of anything you did.
  • Our governing philosophy has been individualistic since Reagan. (Even Clinton followed a kinder, gentler conservative agenda on things like welfare reform and bank deregulation.) So all the low-hanging fruit has been picked by now. If a problem can be solved by free markets and low taxes, we’ve solved it already.

Consequently, we’re at a point where the respective advantages of the two parties are wildly divergent: If a conversation can be kept on an abstract level, the Republican rhetorical advantage holds: They speak Americans’ first language and Democrats speak the second language. But if you get into details and start gathering evidence on a particular issue, the Democratic solution works better.

The budget debate is the perfect example: Republicans do well when they can keep the discussion on the level of “government spends too much” or can list some small examples of “government waste”. But when they have to quantify the amount of waste and list programs that they want to cut, they’re in trouble.

Selecting for ideologues. As a result, specific, evidence-based, expertise-respecting conservatism has all but died out. A Republican Congressman who publicly accepted, say, the consensus of climate scientists on global warming or the consensus of economists that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves — that candidate would be on the wrong side of conservative rhetoric in the next primary. One who went beyond rhetoric about government incompetence or “death panels” and presented a serious plan for what a Walmart worker should do when she gets breast cancer, well, he’d have a short career.

So we’re left with the conservative ideologues, with people who aren’t interested in discovering how the world is, because they know how it has to be: cutting taxes and spending has to be good, involving government in a problem has to be bad, government debt has to be bad, and so on. If some problem (like global warming or the 50 million people who lack health insurance) doesn’t have a free-market solution, then it can’t really be a problem.

To me, the paradigm is Rick Santorum’s indignation when someone confronted him with the fact that tens of thousands of the uninsured die unnecessarily every year. He simply couldn’t deal with it and substituted his fantasy world for the real one: People without health insurance don’t die unnecessarily, and if they do, it’s their own fault.

Talking past each other. So the typical liberal/conservative debate in Congress these days looks like this: The liberal will present an evidence-based expertise-based plan to, say, deal with the economy’s measurable lack of demand by spending money to fix our roads and bridges. The conservative will respond with unquantifiable, uncheckable assertions that debt will destroy business confidence, and that unemployment will go down if we stop coddling the unemployed with extended benefits and instead cut regulations to give the “job creators” more freedom.

Where can the conversation go from there? There is literally nothing to talk about. As Allen says:

Our political polarization and dysfunctional public debate is largely driven by convictions and worldviews immune to contrary evidence and expertise.

What Allen wants to see. Allen calls for a renewed commitment to four virtues: respect for evidence, tolerance of ambiguity, caring about consequences, and commitment to the common good.

Almost by accident, he winds up with the best program for Republican renewal I’ve seen: Republicans need a vision of a right-sized government, what it does, and where it gets the resources to do it.

They don’t have one now. What a conservative government should do is always “less”. As a result, Republicans can only unite on the negative: They can block what Democrats want to do, but on most of the serious problems that Americans face at the moment, they have no solutions to offer.

So in Republican primaries, the incumbent’s vision of “less government” can always be trumped by someone who wants even less than that. The only possible escape from this constant devolution is to envision a right-sized conservative government that is committed to solving certain problems and commands the resources to succeed.

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  • Larry Stauber  On April 29, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Interesting, but still sounds partisan. I would recommend another book, this one by Mickey Edwards of the Aspen Institute, a former 8-term congressman from Oklahoma, called The Parties vs. the People — How To Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans. (Yale Univ. Press). I’d love to read your analysis of it.

    • weeklysift  On May 1, 2013 at 7:16 am

      I will look at it, but my immediate reaction is that as long as Republicans are making a dogma out of global-warming denial and a number of other reality-denying positions, responsible people have an obligation to take a partisan stand against them.


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