The Dumbed Down Congress: Hope on the Horizon?

Here at WaMo, we’ve been focused for a good while on what we’ve called “the Big Lobotomy,” efforts spearheaded by congressional Republicans to reduce the data and analysis available to government to solve problems, beginning with the legislative branch itself. One aspect of the “big lobotomy” that may not be apparent immediately is that alongside reductions in congressional staff Congress under GOP control and influence has also “simplified” the committee structure in a way that has shut down avenues for information and debate.

That’s the main message in Lee Drutman’s review in the new issue of the Washington Monthly of the latest book from political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones entitled The Politics of Information. A big shift occurred in Congress in around 1980 (as you may recall, some big political changes happened that year) that has gradually reduced the ability to deal with tough policy issues in a creative and collaborative way:

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.

I’d add that an event at the very beginning of this period showed Republican ideologues at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue how to circumvent the committee system: the famous 1981 budget and tax packages, utilizing a heretofore little-known process called “reconciliation,” which enabled the Reagan administration to enact about a decade’s worth of legislation in two bills.

After reviewing Baumgartner and Jones’ arguments for greater competition among committees and expanded collection and discussion of more diverse information, Drutman suggests the current extended period of gridlock might convince even limited-government fans to loosen things up a bit:

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.

We can only hope so. Congress cannot afford to dumb itself down much further.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.