Why Congress can’t deliberate

By Lorelei Kelly
December 4, 2012

The new Congress next year will likely inherit high-stakes standoffs over many complicated issues, from financial credibility to immigration. Our elected leaders must be able to make difficult trade-offs and craft policies that reflect the best expert knowledge.

In its current dysfunctional state, however, Congress cannot have nuanced deliberations or make knowledgeable judgments. One big reason is that it no longer has the capacity to produce unbiased public-interest information.

In the mid-1990s the mechanisms that produced the information and statistics that Congress had relied on to produce bills were virtually disassembled. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, many support panels that supplied information and analysis to Congress members were disbanded or curtailed.

As many government agencies have done, Congress outsourced the job to private contractors – in this case, to independent think tanks and policy organizations, which are often ideologically driven. So it is now all too common that the two parties have not only their own opinions but their own facts.

The good news is that some of this congressional dysfunction can be fixed. Congress can use technology to rebuild its capacity to manage information on the public’s behalf.

First, it’s critical to understand how our national legislature got to this defective state. Congress defunded much of its internal system for generating objective expert knowledge in 1995.

I came to work on Capitol Hill two years later to help fill the gaps left by the elimination of the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus—a bipartisan and bicameral resource that had supplied members with analysis and research  about global security threats. I was hired by Representative Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) as a national security adviser and worked with dozens of other members as well.

Congress had jettisoned its bipartisan Office of Technology Assessment at the same time. The OTA had been responsible for providing the Senate and House with context and technical analysis for policymaking. In-house scientists and other experts brought the basic peer review process to Capitol Hill, consulting with a nationwide networks of academics. It was regarded as one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies ‑ and its functions have never been replaced.

Groups that survived the ax were still subject to significant staff cuts, which have limited their effectiveness. Like an institutional immune system, the individuals in these positions defend Congress against the intentional misinformation and purchased access so prevalent in our body politic.

In contrast to most outside information suppliers, those dedicated to the institution point out what Congress knows ‑ but also what Congress doesn’t know. They manage risk on behalf of the public. It is obvious when this deliberation is missing — and one result is this current dysfunction.

Consider Internet regulations. Last year’s Stop Online Piracy Act largely reflected Hollywood’s position as presented by the movie industry’s influential lobbies. But it was ultimately derailed after Internet providers and users staged an online protest and the Internet corporations hired their own powerful lobbyists.

As with any organization, the ability to deliberate depends on skilled human resources. Yet members of Congress lack this support, even as they confront a tsunami of data. Congressional offices are flooded with phone calls, meetings, emails, faxes and letters ‑ roughly 800 percent more incoming communication than 10 years ago. Yet congressional staffs, responsible for analyzing, prioritizing and ultimately referring information to members, are at 87 percent of 1979 levels, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.

Committee staffs – where most expertise resides — took the greatest hit during the 1990s cutbacks. The ability of staff to sort sentiment from substance, or to judge the integrity of incoming information, has been seriously compromised.

Even when expert knowledge is available, we have no way to ensure that elected leaders will use it. Instead, many elected officials now often turn to lobbyists, who spent $3.5 billion to influence legislators in 2010.

The shift in 1995 that outsourced policy expertise to private interests has created a system where purchased relationships reap far more benefits than those based on shared civic values.

So how can the public interest compete?

A vital first step: Non-governmental sources of reliable expertise – those without a financial conflict of interest – must step in to fill the information gap. For example, scientists could provide real-time fact-checking support to staff during congressional hearings via webcast, to ensure that erroneous testimony is immediately identified and corrected.

One academic I know recently said he had been called an “evidence whore,” since he was relying on scientific facts. He felt that the modern scientific method as a way to identify problems, gather data and test solutions has been marginalized.

One step forward is to make expert knowledge a bigger part of the policy process. Professors, academic experts or graduate students could be lined up for regular “g-chat” office hours – a sort of 1-800 EXPERT service to help prepare members before hearings. New transparency rules make substantive contributions more possible than ever before.

Most members of Congress say constituent input is the most important factor in their policy decisions. This can also be true for policy expertise. Trusted, familiar relationships are powerful currency. Local experts have the capital to effectively push open the captured deliberative space on Capitol Hill. These individuals could use their experience and peer-reviewed data to broaden policy alternatives available to members.

Technical experts in particular have a vital role to play. Computing today enables lightning-fast forecasting of alternative outcomes that make future trade-offs over finite public resources such as tax dollars, water, Broadband spectrum or even use of military force more obvious. (Remember when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki testified in 2003 that it would take 300,000 troops to occupy Iraq?)

Congress must also rebuild its non-partisan internal institutions for sharing reliable data. In 1998, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to create and run the Security for a New Century Study Group. We had Senate and House staff meet with objective experts on emerging national security issues.

Our technology was quaint by today’s standards. The program was organized on a desktop email platform and backed up with traditional hard-copy “Dear Colleague” letters. Yet the group ran for 13 years and included thousands of staffers.

People who care about our future have never had better tools to communicate with and influence Congress. Proximity to Capitol Hill is no longer mandatory.

But having the technology isn’t enough. Individuals with expert knowledge will need to organize themselves to be of service. And Congress will need to recognize their expertise as an invaluable asset.

We need to get our House (and Senate) in order.

Photo: Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the press after a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House November 16, 2012, with (L-R) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The New America Foundation released a report on Congress’s inability to deliberate Tuesday.



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What world do you live in?

Communication isn’t the problem.

The problem is the greedy wealthy refuse to pay their fair share of taxes, and no amount of additional expertise is going to change that.

And if you are talking about “lobbyists” as the experts we need, THEY ARE THE PROBLEM.

ALL lobbying should be treated for what it really is — legalized bribery of public officials — and be punished with severe prison sentences.

They are nothing but organized theives attempting to steal from the American people.

Unfortunately, they are doing their job quite well.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

The author wrote, “…many elected officials now often turn to lobbyists, who spent $3.5 billion to influence legislators in 2010.”

There it is – right there. See it? Blink and you’ll miss it – The Big Reason.

Why spend Federal money on accurate data gathering, when you can MAKE personal money from lobbyists? Hey, it’s a good gig if you can get it.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The Fix

- Corporations are not people, and should be banned from all political activities.

- Cash Political Contributions… Cap individually at $1,000 per year to either a Candidate or Party. Money should never make 1 voice more important than another.

Do it by collecting signatures for a national referendum…congress is never going to fix itself.

Posted by Evelio | Report as abusive

The Problems That MUST Go Away Are:

1.) Elimination of Fed (Federal Reserve)
2.) Gridlock of Limited Candidates To Represent People
3.) Elimination Of Wealthy Lobbyists Who Gamble On People’s Way Of Life
4.) Smaller Federal Government Or Separate Governments For Each State So That When One Area Messes Up Citizens Can Choose Healthier Areas Of US.
5.) Politicians Should Be Capped Salaries Of $150,000 Otherwise They Get To Corrupt.
6.) All Offices In Government Should Be 2 Year Terms ONLY. New Leadership For Each Role. Reduce Corruption.

7.) United States Should Have ALREADY Accomplished FREE Alternative Energy For It’s People By Now. Cost Of Living Is Absurd.
8.) United States Needs To Focus On 100% War Reduction Globally / No More Forcing Our Doctrines On Other Nations.
9.) European Union Needs To Be Dismantled. Europeans Are More Competitive With Us When They Trade Resources Amongst Each Other At Fair Market Prices (not artificially controlled political prices).

10.) Top 1000 Companies Globally Need To Train More Educated People Ages 16 – 30 And Re-establish Normal Living Standards So We Can Re-Gain Middle Class Status In 4 Years.
11.) Create A Global Universal System Toward Shared Food, Energy & Affordable Living Standards For All.

Posted by DyingWorld | Report as abusive

A hundred years ago whoever controlled the military had the true political power. Today, whoever controlls the information has the true politcal power. In this case outsourced research businesses. The subjectivity and bias in going about collecting data is enormous. Research should be a government function and the brief for the research brief should be openly disclosed and any political party with 20% or more can commission research. I am sure there will be challanges but it will hopefully put a stop to selective gathering of information to suit private agendas.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

The loss of the Office of Technology Assessment in particular was a tragedy and we pay the price with each passing year. But Republicans especially didn’t like their conclusions, since they were reality-based and not ideology-based. The current situation is far too similar to how the USSR operated throughout its existence.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive