Low-Information Lawmakers

Why today’s Congress can no longer cope with complex problems.

We humans have a hard time with complexity; our brains are only capable of paying attention to one thing at a time. Once we start weighing different sides of a problem, trying to make trade-offs across multiple dimensions, keeping all kinds of facts straight, our heads start to hurt. We are quickly overwhelmed. When Herman Cain promised that, if elected president, he would not sign any bill longer than three pages, he was tapping into something deep in the human psyche. At three pages, we might feel in control.

We are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” We naturally conserve our mental energy, and prefer the simple (less taxing) over the complex (more taxing). That’s why politics is easier when there are two parties, which can organize issues into simple binary choices: more government spending or less government spending; Wall Street or Main Street; good or evil.

With simplicity comes clarity; with diversity comes loss of control. Yet clarity, appealing as it may be, has some harmful consequences for our political institutions. It limits the ability to examine problems creatively, from multiple angles, and makes it harder to change anything. Good luck solving health care or energy or immigration or global trade in three plain-language pages. But once you allow in more angles and dimensions, you inevitably open up the process to who knows what.

Jun15-Baumgartner-BooksThe Politics of Information:
Problem Definition and the
Course of Public Policy in America

by Frank R. Baumgautner
and Bryan D. Jones
University of Chicago Press, 264 pp.

This conflict is at the heart of a fascinating new book by the political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones called The Politics of Information: Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America. Baumgartner and Jones are grappling with a fundamental question of governance: How do we collectively solve problems whose complexity exceeds the cognition of any one person? And what happens when we attempt to impose simplicity on complex problems that defy such control?

At the risk of oversimplification (inevitable within the confines of a book review), we have two basic choices for how we orient our political institutions, particularly Congress. We can try to impose control and clarity on the chaos by clear top-down jurisdictions (for example, non-overlapping committee structures with powerful leaders). Or we can allow institutions that will look at problems differently, embracing the value of diversity in generating different perspectives (for example, messy overlapping committee jurisdictions, with proliferating subcommittees). The second option brings in more information but diffuses power. “Information and control are in inherent conflict,” write Baumgartner and Jones. “The more information, the greater the problem of setting priorities or maintaining control.”

Baumgartner and Jones are veteran political scientists who have been asking these types of big, system-level questions for more than two decades, both separately and together. Their first joint book, the seminal Agendas and Instability in American Politics (1993), borrowed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” from evolution and applied it to public policy as a way of understanding change: long periods of stasis, followed by sudden bursts of change at critical moments when new narratives upset existing power structures. Their second book together, The Politics of Attention (2005), focused on the information-processing capacity of government, with an emphasis on that scarcest of commodities in the political environment: attention. Limited attention means that government tends to either ignore or overreact to new developments, and as a result, they wrote, the U.S. political system has “overreacted, hesitated, and lurched its way through scores of problems over the past 50 years.” Now, with the Politics of Information, they’ve shifted the focus to the ways in which government generates its own information.

The authors draw on one of the most impressive data collections ever assembled, the Policy Agendas Project, a comprehensive resource of bills, hearings, laws, media coverage, budgets, and other measures of what government actually does. (The full collection is available at policyagendas.org.)

This data shows how American government has, over the past six decades, gone through two distinct periods. In the first, from about 1950 to 1980, the government opted for more diversity and engaged in what the authors call the “Great Issue Expansion.” During this time, the range of different issues on the government agenda grew significantly. Congressional subcommittees became bigger. Overlapping jurisdiction proliferated. Government held more hearings, sought more information, paid attention to more problems, and, as a result, came up with more solutions. Diversity (what the authors call “entropic information”) triumphed over clarity. While the Congress of the 1960s and ’70s certainly made some mistakes, in no other period has the first branch solved more problems more productively.

In the late ’70s, the expansion of issues and staff gradually came to a halt, and the focus turned to a search for clarity. As the range of issues and the number of subcommittees declined, Congress reduced overall levels of committee staff positions. Congress also held fewer hearings. And the hearings it did hold were much more likely to be oversight hearings, rather than hearings that considered and evaluated new legislation. Notably, in 1949, 81 percent of congressional hearings were related to legislation; in 2005, just 11 percent of congressional hearings were.

This reversal was no accident. By 1980, the public had turned decisively against government. And at first the Reagan White House led the charge—Baumgartner and Jones cite Walt Williams’s description of Reagan’s leadership style as “anti-analytic” and note the 1980s White House cuts in funding for domestic policy analysis. As Baumgartner and Jones write, “One way to halt or slow the growth of government is to cut down on information.” In Congress, the Gingrich revolution of 1995 took this approach one step further. Gingrich slashed House committee staffs and budgets, and centralized more authority in the party leadership, a decisive blow against diversity and decentralization. Senate committee staffing levels
also declined.

The Politics of Information is, in part, an extended investigation of these basic patterns, with an impressive catalog of charts mapping the expansion and contraction of government information search. But an equally important contribution of the book is its convincing argument for why greater diversity of information is a necessary component of a dynamic politics capable of solving complex problems.

One reason why proliferating jurisdictions can contribute to policy productivity is that the more subcommittees or agencies that pay attention to complex multi-dimensional problems, the better the government can effectively solve them. As Baumgartner and Jones write, “[C]lear jurisdictions imply narrower definitions of what is at stake, what information is relevant, and how this information should be interpreted. Messy and overlapping jurisdictions imply contests about what is at stake, what information is relevant, and what goals we are trying to maximize.”

Contested jurisdictions also mean competition. And competition is good thing. The authors write, “Many quasi-independent venues for policy making and problem discovery and definition lead to dynamism and change.” Consider the politics of the 1978 airline deregulation bill, which replaced the existing price-and-entry regulation with a pro-competitive regime that brought down prices. Even though Senator Ted Kennedy chaired the Justice Committee instead of the more appropriate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee, he was still able to utilize significant staff resources to hold extensive hearings on airline price fixing, which galvanized significant reform. It is true that lax antitrust enforcement in the airline industry in the intervening years has undermined many of the purported benefits of the 1978 deregulation. But that shouldn’t understate the magnitude of a legislative accomplishment that went against the interests of a major industry.

This legislation came at the height of the Great Issue Expansion—a period that produced both the expert capability to enact a major reform as well as the decentralized power structures to allow this kind of reform to move forward. “Some may think that increased complexity and interaction among component parts in a system lead to gridlock and inability to act,” they write. “That is not the case.” Rather, the proliferation of jurisdictions created competition and therefore dynamism.

Another important consequence of declining internal information-generating capacity (which Baumgartner and Jones don’t mention) is that it makes government more reliant on outside sources for information. Since these outside sources are increasingly made up of biased industry lobbyists, this skews government priorities and perspectives.

The question now is whether we might be due for another period of expanding information diversity, and the openness and unpredictability it creates. After all, the authors note, U.S. budget data going back to 1790 shows a continual cycle of expansion, then stabilization, followed by more expansion, then stabilization again. And ignoring or failing to solve problems does not make them go away.

Our current polarized gridlock—a logical result of partisan centralization and hierarchy, not to mention deep Republican obstructionism—can only last for so long. At some point, the failure to solve long-ignored problems will put destabilizing pressure on the political system. What looks like deadlock is likely only a temporary stasis. Or, as the authors note in more scientific terms, “[A]s in all complex systems, equilibria are often partial.”

If history is any guide, then, a new politics of chaos, and subsequently openness, may arise sometime soon. Something has to break. A new period of legislative productivity may yet be ahead.

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America and the author of The Business of America Is Lobbying.